HELENA — Those suing to redraw Montana’s Public Service Commission districts for the 2022 election submitted three proposed new district maps to a federal court this week – each of which makes changes to all five PSC district boundaries.
Each map is different, but they all add counties to northeastern Montana’s District 1, whose population is far below the equitable population benchmark of 216,800 people, and subtract counties from districts 3 and 5, which are western Montana districts well above the population benchmark.
“There is no perfect map, but the remedy does not need to be perfect – it simply needs to be lawful and equitable,” wrote Constance Van Kley, an attorney for the three plaintiffs.
She said the maps also bring the population counts “well within tolerable limits,” avoid redistricting current and incumbent commissioners out of their districts, and minimize the moving of voter blocs in two districts up for election this year.
Those districts are District 5, which includes Helena and Kalispell, and District 1. Incumbent Commissioner Randy Pinocci, R-Sun River, is running for re-election in District 1 and state Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, has filed to run in District 5, an open seat.
The plaintiffs – former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown and Gallatin County residents Hailey Sinoff and Don Seifert – filed suit late last year, saying the five PSC districts have become unconstitutional because their populations are nowhere close to equal.
A panel of three federal judges based in Missoula so far has indicated it agrees, but set a March 4 trial to decide the issue – just 10 days before the deadline for candidates to file to run for the PSC in two of the districts this year.
Brown, Sinoff and Seifert submitted three maps to the court this week, saying each could be adopted “as is,” modified by the court or “rejected in favor of an alternative solution.” The court this week ordered the lawsuit’s defendant, Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, to submit at least one proposed map by Feb. 22.
The PSC regulates electric, natural gas, water and other utilities in Montana and has five members elected by district. The district boundaries haven’t been redrawn since 2003. District 3, which includes fast-growing Bozeman, and District 5, which includes Kalispell and Helena, now have populations that are 10.5 percent and 7 percent higher, respectively than an equitable amount.
District 1’s population is now 14 percent below the equitable amount. District 4, which includes Missoula and five other western Montana counties, is 3.4 percent below an equitable population, and District 2, which includes Billings and southeast Montana, has about the correct population.
However, the proposed maps make changes to all districts. Here’s a closer look at the changes in each proposed map:
Map #1: It adds Pondera, Glacier, Meagher, Broadwater, Prairie and Fallon counties to northern Montana’s District 1. Southeast Montana’s District 2 loses Prairie and Fallon, but gains Golden Valley and Musselshell counties to even things up.
District 3 loses Meagher, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Broadwater and Deer Lodge counties, leaving it with just nine counties, including Bozeman and Butte.
District 4, in western Montana, adds Deer Lodge County (Anaconda), while District 5 loses Glacier and Pondera counties.
Map #2: It adds Prairie, Custer, Fallon, Teton, Wheatland and Meagher counties and parts of Pondera County to District 1. Those first three counties are taken from District 2, which then gains Stillwater, Sweetgrass, Golden Valley and Musselshell counties, from District 3.
District 4 would add Lake County and the southwest corner of Flathead County, but lose Lincoln and Powell counties.
District 5 would gain Lincoln and Powell counties, but lose Lake and Teton counties and part of Pondera County.
Map #3: It adds Glacier, Pondera, Teton, Meagher and Prairie counties to District 1. Southeast Montana’s District 2 adds Musselshell, but loses Prairie.
District 3 loses Meagher, Musselshell, Broadwater and Jefferson counties.
District 4, again, would add Lake County and the southwest corner of Flathead County, but lose Lincoln and Powell counties. District 5 would pick up Lincoln, Powell, Broadwater and Jefferson counties, but also subtract Lake, Glacier, Pondera and Teton counties.