Special session off the table, as GOP lawmakers can’t reach agreement
HELENA — A special session of the Montana Legislature in the coming weeks appears off the table, after Republican lawmakers pushing for the event said Friday they can’t forge an agreement on redrawing Montana’s Public Service Commission electoral districts for 2022.
In a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte late Friday, the group of lawmakers said they could not get a majority of either the House or Senate to agree on a final plan.
“Without a majority supporting the call, we felt it was not in the best interest of your office, the legitimacy of the Legislature or the benefit of Montana to submit the failed attempt to you,” they said.
The group also had been pushing to have the special session create a select committee to investigate election processes in Montana.
But Gianforte and leaders of Republican majorities at the current Legislature said they would support a special session only to redraw Montana’s five PSC districts, to avoid a federal court doing it instead – and, only if GOP members could promise they would not expand the session to include other issues.
In a letter earlier Friday, Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said there was no consensus on a PSC map or limiting the session’s scope.
A pending lawsuit before federal court says the current PSC districts are unconstitutional, because of grossly unequal populations, and a panel of federal judges has indicated it agrees. The panel has scheduled a March 4 trial on the question and could approve newly drawn district maps for the 2022 election.
The PSC, whose five members are elected by district, regulate electric, gas, water and other utilities in Montana.
Republicans have been trying for weeks to agree on new PSC districts, so they can convene a special session to enact them, instead of having the court do it.
Legislative Democrats have opposed any special session, saying it’s not needed. They’ve said Republicans could have redrawn the districts in many previous regular legislative sessions, but didn’t do it.
Blasdel and Galt said late Friday if there is no special session, the GOP majorities will redraw the PSC districts next year, at the 2023 Legislature.
“Whether it's in a special session or during the next regular session, Republicans are going to reform the system to ensure federal judges can't interfere in Montana's PSC elections again," they said. “Democrats have said they're fine with liberal and California judges drawing Montana's maps, so Republican leadership has been working hard for months to get consensus among the diverse Republican caucus.”
But it appeared that Republican lawmakers, who hold substantial majorities at the Legislature, could not agree among themselves on how or whether to draw the districts during a special session.
Some of the group pushing for the session said they would not support redrawing the districts unless the session also formed the committee to investigate election procedures in Montana. Yet many other GOP legislators said no such committee was needed, or simply opposed any special session.
Only two PSC districts are up for election this year: District 1, which covers north-central and northeast Montana, and District 5, which includes Helena and Kalispell and other parts of northwestern Montana.
If the federal court acts next month, it may redraw those districts’ boundaries, along with the other three districts, to even out the population in all five districts.