Sponsor of property tax initiative is asking court to dismiss lawsuit

The initiative must collect 60,000 signatures by June 17

By: - February 8, 2022 2:43 pm

Matthew Monforton appears before Lewis and Clark County District Judge Christopher Abbott on Jan. 24, 2022.

One of the sponsors of a constitutional initiative that would cap property taxes at 2019 levels is asking a District Court Judge to toss out a lawsuit challenging the initiative arguing the new law at the center of the legal challenge conflicts with Montanan’s constitutional rights to signature-gathering.

“The Montana Constitution grants the people the right to ‘alter or abolish the constitution and form of government whenever they deem it necessary,'” Matthew Monforton wrote in a summary judgment motion to dismiss the complaint filed on Friday. Monforton, a Bozeman lawyer, is one of the defendants named in the legal challenge and a sponsor of Constitutional Initiative 121.

The Montana Federation of Public Employees, two agricultural groups, and a handful of other individuals filed a suit on Jan. 12 asking Lewis and Clark District County Judge Chris Abbott to temporarily block signature-gathering and ultimately rule the initiative invalid on the basis that administrative rules set out in House Bill 651 were not followed when approving CI-121 for signature gathering.

The new law requires the attorney general to conduct a legal review of ballot initiatives to determine if they will cause “significant material harm” to businesses and for the secretary of state to assign initiatives to an interim legislative committee for review. Neither step was taken before the Jan. 7 approval by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen for signature gathering.

However, Monforton is not asking the court to strike down the law but is arguing that it only applies to statutory — not constitutional — initiatives.

Monforton said in the Friday court filing the plaintiffs’ are “liberal special interests groups attempting to weaponize HB651 against Montana homeowners.” For the initiative to appear on the 2022 ballot, it must collect 60,000 signatures by June 17.

Outside of the lawsuit’s scope, Monforton took issue with HB651 as a whole.

“HB 651 is the product of arrogance and deep hostility toward voters who gave Republicans two-thirds of the Legislature in November 2020. By enacting HB 651 to suppress voter initiative rights, legislators reciprocated by giving their voters the finger,” he wrote in the filing. “What is clear is that the Montana constitution does not permit allegations of inaction by state officials to be used as a pretext to suppress the petitioning rights of Montana citizens under Articles II and XIV of the Montana constitution.”

And if the law did apply to constitutional initiatives, Monforton said failing to meet its requirements should not delay or invalidate initiative signatures.
“By requiring signature-gathering to await the Attorney General’s business-impact review of an initiative, the Secretary of State’s submission of the initiative’s text and ballot statements to the Legislature, and the Legislature’s vote on the initiative, the Court would be giving each of these state actors a pocket veto over proposed constitutional initiatives by allowing them to slow-walk their duties under HB 651 – or not perform them at all,” he wrote.

Defendants in the case are the State of Montana, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Jacobsen, current auditor Troy Downing and Monforton.

In a Jan. 25 ruling, Abbott allowed signature gathering to continue while the legal challenge plays out.

“Judge Abbott is allowing signature gathering to go forward while the case is pending. That’s a good sign that our arguments will ultimately prevail when a final ruling is made on the case,” Monforton said in an email.

 

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.

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