Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Coalitions of powerful Montana organizations representing public employees, local governments and business interests are joining Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen in arguing that a proposal to limit property taxes violates the constitution and would have sweeping negative financial effects.

The attorney behind the constitutional amendment ballot measure, Bozeman-based Matthew Monforton, argues that Knudsen’s office in June improperly found the proposal, Ballot Issue No. 2, was not legally sufficient for the 2024 ballot.

He also told the Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon that the Attorney General’s Office’s filing this week opposing his request for a court review of the decision contained new arguments the original insufficiency finding did not.

But in three separate amicus, or friend of the court, briefs filed in recent days, some of the state’s most powerful organizations backed the Attorney General’s Office’s latest arguments that the proposed ballot measure amends multiple parts of the constitution in violation of a requirement that constitutional changes be separate ballot issues. They also argued the proposal contains ambiguous language.

The groups said the proposal, if approved for the ballot and then by voters, would create financial challenges on multiple levels, citing a fiscal analysis that says the proposal could cost both local governments and the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

A coalition of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, Montana Association of Counties, and Montana Quality Education Coalition said the proposal “threatens the very fabric of local government” because of the language and potential financial impacts. The Montana Federation of Public Employees said in a separate brief that if the proposal makes the ballot next year, it would have “drastic implications for the revenues of the State of Montana, counties, cities, and schools.”

A business group composed of the Montana Association of Realtors, Montana Bankers Association, Montana Building Industry Association and Montana Chamber of Commerce, said in the third filing that it would cost them “significant resources” to oppose if it makes the ballot and “would result in serious financial uncertainty for communities and schools” in Montana.

Meanwhile, Knudsen continues to argue that he was correct in deeming the proposal insufficient for the 2024 ballot, according to his office’s response in the case on Monday. The proposal aims to limit property taxes for those that have not recently been sold or upgraded.

Deputy Attorney General David Ortley wrote in June that the proposal violated the separate-vote requirement in Article XIV, Section 11 of the Montana Constitution because the property tax equation variables it seeks to change would have “differing fiscal impacts” and because of the measure’s alleged ambiguous language.

The fiscal note for the measure found it would decrease the statewide property tax that could be levied by 88%, would cost the state more than $450 million in annual revenue starting in 2027, and would decrease local revenues by $1.5 billion.

Monforton protested the denial in mid-June, arguing a nearly identical measure was approved in 2021 though it failed to make the ballot. He also argued the attorney general does not have the power to stop a ballot issue because of the constitutional separation of powers, and that the attorney general should not be allowed to attach fiscal notes to ballot proposals under the constitution. Monforton said the fiscal notes were additional burdens to Montanans seeking to circulate petitions.

He asked the Supreme Court to overrule the Attorney General’s Office’s finding of legal insufficiency for the ballot issue and to order the fiscal statement invalid.

The Supreme Court on June 16 allowed Monforton’s challenges of the insufficiency determination and fiscal statement to move forward.

Monday, the Attorney General’s Office’s said in its new response that Monforton’s argument about whether the attorney general has the authority to halt proposed ballot measures is “patently absurd.” It said that rather, the attorney general has “unquestioned authority to withhold measures failing to satisfy constitutional criteria” before they are sent to voters.

Second, the office said it believes Ballot Issue No. 2 violates the state constitution’s separate-vote requirement, which involves a test as to whether the initiative would make more than a single change to constitutional provisions that are not “closely related.”

In the office’s original finding of insufficiency, it found there was “a close question” whether the proposal violated the separate-vote requirement.  It also stated that the proposal “amends a single section of the Montana Constitution.”

But in the most recent filing, the Attorney General’s Office argued that the proposal would amend at least four sections of the constitution, and said since it believes that is the case, the proposals should be broken up into separate initiatives before they can be considered for signature gathering.

Monforton said in a Tuesday filing that the provisions the office cited in its latest brief would not be affected by the proposal and that the Attorney General’s Office made new arguments in its latest filing – from initially saying in June the proposal amended one section of the constitution to arguing it changes at least four.

The Attorney General’s Office also argued in Monday’s response that Monforton’s proposal remains ambiguous and could deceive voters.

The Supreme Court will now decide whether to rule on the petition from Monforton, to uphold the Attorney General’s finding, or to provide Monforton the opportunity to file a short reply to the office’s latest filing.