Gianforte: Special session OK, but only if to draw new PSC districts

Letter calling for new PSC districts and elections committee circulates as court deadline looms

By: - February 15, 2022 6:25 pm

A proposed map advanced by Skees (Courtesy Rep. Derek Skees)

Gov. Greg Gianforte and Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday they in principle agree with emerging calls from the caucus for a special session to redraw Public Service Commission districts before the 2022 election, but cast skepticism over a request to use that special session to create and fund a select committee on election integrity.

State representative and Public Service Commission hopeful Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, began circulating a map and a letter calling for a special session this week, with the intention of sending it to the Governor’s Office by Friday. The map, for which he said there’s growing support, would consolidate the two northwestern Montana districts that currently exist into one, borrowing a portion of Missoula, and split other high-population areas between districts.

At the root of the push is litigation filed in federal court in December alleging that dramatic population differences between the five PSC districts violate the U.S. Constitution’s “one person, one vote” principle. 

In rulings last month, the U.S. District Court for the state of Montana signaled it agreed with this analysis, and said it would reach a decision on how to handle the imbalanced districts by March 4 — just 10 days before candidate filing for the PSC districts closes. Until the court reaches its decision, the judges have enjoined Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who’s named as the plaintiff in the suit, from registering candidates for the two PSC seats up for grabs this cycle.

The state has argued that the proper venue for redrawing the PSC districts, which are currently all held by Republicans, would be the 2023 legislative session.

But the court, citing inaction on the issue for the past several legislative sessions, was unconvinced, and made clear it was willing to resolve the issue itself. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, a group including former Secretary of State Bob Brown, have also put forth their own visions for redrawing the map.

This all has given rise to calls from certain members in the legislative majority for a special session to address the issue. 

For the courts to draw PSC maps would be a “travesty of justice,” said Skees, who’s running for PSC District 5, which in the current map spans Helena to Kalispell. He told the Daily Montanan he believes a federal court drawing the districts would amount to a violation of the 10th Amendment, which holds that powers not delegated to the feds are reserved for the states. 

“This is an entity created by the legislature,” he said. 

The Public Service Commission regulates utilities in Montana. Unlike legislative and congressional districts, the shape and makeup of PSC districts is up to the Legislature. But in the decades since the districts were last redrawn, population disparities between some districts have grown to more than 50,000 people. Skees’ proposed map would shrink that gap to around 3,100 residents at most, but would also draw him into a seat that’s not up for re-election this year. He previously told Lee Enterprises he’d be willing to sacrifice his run for better representation in Flathead County.

Lawmakers, leadership and the Governor’s Office have been in meetings in recent weeks in search of an agreement on how to proceed with a special session, something that can happen a few different ways. The easiest, though most restrictive, is through the Governor’s Office — anything else requires a majority of legislators and a possibly lengthy polling process. The line from Gov. Gianforte has been fairly consistent: He’d consider assembling the Legislature in a special session if there’s unity behind a proposed redrawing of the map, and if lawmakers limit the purview of the session to the PSC matter.

He reiterated those thoughts in a letter shared with GOP lawmakers Tuesday.

“If and when the Legislature has demonstrated ample support for a PSC map and an agreement a special session’s single focus will be limited to PSC districts, I am willing to call a special session for the purpose of PSC redistricting …” he wrote.

The issue is that calls for a special session, at least from Skees and his legislative allies, have been broader than that. His letter revives requests from last year for a special select interim committee with investigatory powers “charged with confirming the Election Integrity of Montana.”

But the request hasn’t found much traction among leadership. In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, House Speaker Wylie Galt and Senate President Mark Blasdel said they agreed on calling a special session to address the PSC map, but that they had unanswered questions about the motivation for and mechanics of a special elections committee.

“What are the scope and goals of the proposed committee?” they wrote. “We have received emails from concerned citizens regarding the scope of the proposed committee’s work. Suggested items have included the following: a full forensic audit, complete hand count of all ballots in all counties from the 2020 election, and the elimination of vote counting machines going with entirely hand counts instead. Are any or all of these proposals being brought forward?”

Leadership letter regarding special session call

And how much would it cost, they asked, citing estimates that ranged from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on who they talk to. And what powers would it have that a normal committee doesn’t? And what exactly would it be investigating? Do the requesters already have votes lined up? They also cited several election laws passed in the 2021 session, such as one ending same-day voter registration, restricting ballot collection and so on. How would this committee go beyond those policies, they asked.

“As you know, special sessions are very brief and require a lot of coordination to be successful,” they wrote. “We believe having firm and agreed-upon answers to the above questions would be necessary to have a productive special session. Legislators should have a clear and full understanding of the special select committee proposal prior to being expected to sign onto a letter calling for a special session addressing that topic.”

Skees did not respond to a question about these conditions by publication time.

The calls for a special session and elections committee have also raised concerns among more moderate members of the caucus, some of whom will need to survive likely bruising primaries from the right if they want to keep their seats, or are just generally concerned about the cost and logistics of a special session.

In a letter to the editor he’s releasing this week, retiring Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said a special session would amount to little more than a “taxpayer funded campaign tour,” and called the election integrity requests “political theatre.”

“Savvy political operatives understand that earned media helps win elections, and what better way to get on television or in the paper than through a taxpayer funded Special Session,” he wrote. “This veteran legislator will not support our special session tool being turned into a taxpayer funded campaign event.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.