HELENA — A group of Republican lawmakers is pushing for a special legislative session as soon as Feb. 28, to redraw Montana’s Public Service Commission districts for the 2022 election and create a special committee to investigate election processes in Montana.
The group is circulating a letter, drafted this week, asking Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to call the session – and asking fellow lawmakers to sign it and show their support for the effort.
Gianforte and leaders of the Republican majorities at the current Legislature said Tuesday they support a special session to redraw Montana’s five PSC districts, to avoid a federal court doing it instead.
A pending lawsuit before the court says the current 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.
But Gianforte and the GOP leaders, in letters issued Tuesday, did not support having a special session to create the investigatory election committee.
“I am willing to call a special session for the sole purpose of PSC redistricting and any statutory requirements associated with a legislative session,” the governor wrote.
Legislative Democrats oppose any special session, and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, on Tuesday urged Gianforte not to call one.
She said neither the PSC nor election issues warrant a special session and warned that efforts to limit a special session to a single issue often go awry, because a simple majority of lawmakers can expand the session once it’s called by the governor.
A Montana governor can call a special session of the Legislature at any time and restrict what issues are addressed. However, once it’s convened, any 76 legislators – a simple majority of its 150 members – can expand it to include other issues. The current Legislature has 98 Republicans and 52 Democrats.
A majority of legislators also can vote to call the Legislature into special session without the governor’s approval, through a poll conducted by the secretary of state.
But Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, a leader of the group pushing for a special session, said that process would take too long, pushing a session past the March 14 deadline for PSC candidates to file as candidates in 2022.
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. Skees is running for PSC District 5, which is an open seat.
Yet Skees said Tuesday he is supporting a proposed PSC district map that would make it impossible for him to run this year, by putting Flathead County into a district with an incumbent commissioner – Republican Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls – who is not up for re-election this year.
“I’m not going to let something that I think is good for Montana, creating five really strong representative districts -- I’m not going to let my arrogance of wanting to be in that race stop that,” he said.
House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, told MTN News he has seen as many as 15 proposed maps for new PSC districts, and that there’s been wide discussion on which one could be supported by the GOP majority.
He also said GOP leaders are working with Gianforte to assure him the session won’t be expanded beyond the PSC issue.
Galt and Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, said they have many unanswered questions about the scope and nature of any committee that would investigate Montana’s election processes, such as what it would cost, what special subpoena power it would need, and what is the need for any investigation.
Skees said he thinks the committee could have a budget of $250,000 and would examine the many questions that voters are raising about whether elections are secure.
He said when he goes door-to-door to talk to voters, many Republican-leaning voters say they’re not going to vote, because they don’t trust that their vote will be counted.
“What the electorate is asking for is proof that there is nothing wrong with Montana’s election,” Skees said. “Let’s give them that proof.”