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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Special Legislative Session Facing Increasing Opposition

Montana Senate President Scott Sales, left, and House Speaker Austin Knudsen, both Republicans, are on opposite sides of the call for a special session
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Senate President Scott Sales, left, and House Speaker Austin Knudsen, both Republicans, are on opposite sides of the call for a special session

Montana lawmakers have a little less than two weeks to decide whether to come back to Helena for a special legislative session, potentially the second in eight months.

“It’s going to be a very heavy lift to get the 76 votes,” Senate President Scott Sales said.

Sales supports the call for a special session. Seventy-six is one more than half the number of seats in the legislature, and the minimum number of votes required to call a special session.

Sales and some Republicans want the session in order to pass two referenda to compete with citizen ballot initiatives regarding the future mining regulation and Medicaid expansion in the state.

But their effort is facing growing political opposition.

Democrats have taken to posting photos on social media of their ballots rejecting the call, saying it undermines voters.

Governor Steve Bullock has called the proposal “absurd."

The Montana Association of Counties, late last week, sent a letter to Republican leaders in the House and Senate, as well as to the governor also opposing the idea.

“It was unanimous to not support doing a special session and special election,” MACo President Bill Barron said.

Barron wrote the letter.

In it he said, “taxpayers should not be footing the bill for an unnecessary special session only to foot the bill for a special election to deal with what they are already funding the regular legislative session to accomplish.” 

Barron says it’s unclear what would happen if lawmakers do return to Helena and pass referenda. He’s not sure if they would be placed on ballots this November, or if a special election would need to be called.

“They don’t seem to realize is what kind of a hardship and a cost this puts on counties to hold a special election,” Barron said.

But Senate President Scott Sales says if a special election is necessary the state will pick up the cost.

He says he wasn’t contacted by the Montana Association of Counties before they sent their opposition letter.

“I know I’m probably going to rankle a few county commissioners out there, but this is my fear of the citizen initiative process, is that often times the decision that’s made or the vote that is made isn’t as well informed as it could be. And often times it has emotion tied up with it," Sales said.

The Republican lawmakers calling for a special session want to give Montana voters competing alternatives to proposed citizen ballot initiatives I-185 and I-186.

I-186, if passed by voters, would create more regulations on the pollution generated by mining, which mining industry advocates say will kill future mining jobs in the state.

I-185 would extend the state’s Medicaid expansion program past its sunset date next year and increase Montana’s tobacco tax to pay for it.

President Sales says there are conflicting laws on the books, one says lawmakers could put refrenda on the November ballot if they complete their special session work by July 20. But another says it takes six months, meaning a special election would have to be called.

While Republican leadership in the Senate is on board for a special session the idea does not have support from House Speaker Austin Knudsen.

In an email obtained by MTPR, Knudsen cautioned his party members that, “the idea that we call ourselves into special session to pass voter referenda to ‘fix’ just-passed voter initiatives will be politically ugly. Add to that the timing of a special election we would set for these referenda ... exactly when the regular Legislative session will be occurring.” 

Speaker Knudsen declined to be interviewed and said his lengthy email speaks for itself. In it, he says that although he too sees potential issues with I-185 and I-186, a special session is not the best way to address those concerns.

He wrote, “I believe there is much more to lose than can be gained from calling a special session.” He adds his words are not an edict, and his caucus should feel free to vote a special session up or down.

Lawmaker ballots are due July 15 at 5 p.m. If approved, the special session would begin the following morning.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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