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Bill would eliminate new requirements for citizen-led ballot initiatives

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Lawmakers and lobbyists walk through the state capitol

Lawmakers and lobbyists walk through the state capitol during the 68th Montana Legislature on in early January in the state capitol.

A former GOP lawmaker backing changes to Montana’s citizen-led ballot initiative process likened new requirements added in 2021 to illegal “barnacles on a ship,” and said it helped special interest groups who torpedoed his attempt to slash property taxes last year.

“I’m politely warning the committee that if HB 651 is not repealed, there will be multiple lawsuits,” Matthew Monforton warned the Senate State Administration Committee on Monday. “You will lose them, and you will deserve to lose them.”

The Bozeman attorney was referring to the 2021 law adding new steps in the process to get a citizen initiative qualified to appear on the ballot.

Citizen-proposed ballot initiatives must reach a certain threshold of voter signatures before they can appear on the ballot. The 2021 law requires those initiative petitions to first go before a legislative interim committee for review and a vote before they can go out for signature-collecting. The attorney general’s office also gets an opportunity to weigh in, deciding whether they would be bad for business and whether they might be unconstitutional. 

Previously, only the AG had a role, and that was limited to whether the initiative complied with requirements that it not consist of multiple initiatives or exceed a designated word count.

In written testimony, retired Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson also issued a scathing critique of the new ballot initiative requirements. Like other proponents, he noted that the Montana Constitution empowers citizens “to govern themselves and exercise that power through direct democracy, through the ability to amend their constitution.”

“A constitutional right is worth nothing,” Nelson wrote, “when the Legislature and the governor can make the exercise of that right so complicated and difficult that it becomes not worth the effort.”

Monforton was closely involved in the attempt last year to get Constitutional Initiative 121 added onto the ballot. The controversial proposal would have capped residential property taxes, but a broad, bipartisan coalition of opponents argued that would amount to tax-shifts that would unfairly burden businesses, agriculture and local governments.

That coalition spent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep it off the ballot, but Monforton also pinned their success on the newly enacted stumbling blocks the proposal encountered, with the committee delaying action and pushing back the timeline for signature-gathering to begin. Other bill proponents included those who had attempted to get statutory initiatives on the ballot.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce donated heavily to the campaign to defeat the initiative, and Charles Robison, a lobbyist for the Chamber, was among the bill’s opponents.

“I would submit that there were no (statutory) initiatives on the ballot because not enough signatures were gathered,” he said.

He and other opponents suggested the new procedures added transparency to the process, allowing for a more in-depth examination of what a ballot proposal would do if enacted. On the property-tax initiative in particular, the committees held lengthy hearings discussing an array of potential ripple effects from the proposed changes to the state’s tax structure.

“Neither the Legislature through the opinion that you issue, nor the Attorney General’s opinion precludes a measure from being put on the ballot,” said Darryl James, the director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, which also opposed the property-tax proposal. “It merely informs your constituents about your position and the state’s attorney’s position.”

Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, is sponsoring the proposed repeal, Senate Bill 153. The committee didn’t take any immediate action on the bill.

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