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Federal judges may end up redrawing Montana's utility regulator districts

After months of discussion and a flurry of political clashes, the push for a special legislative session has lost steam. That likely leaves the districts of Montana’s powerful utility oversight commission in the hands of a panel of federal judges. MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar joins Freddy Monares to break down what happened and what’s next.

Freddy Monares: Shaylee, there’s been lots of chatter about state lawmakers heading back to Helena for a special legislative session — what’s going on?

Shaylee Ragar: A special session is never completely off the table; the governor could call one at any time. But it’s pretty unlikely to happen at this point for a couple of reasons. First, they’re pretty much out of time to accomplish what was understood as the primary goal of a possible meeting, and that was to redraw the district map for the Public Service Commission. Lawmakers wanted to do that before the candidate filing deadline and a meeting of federal judges to address the map issue, and both those things are happening next month. March is less than a week away, and that doesn’t leave much time for planning or holding a meeting of the legislature.

And the other reason has to do with trust among lawmakers. Even if all Republicans agreed to keep their work focused on the PSC districts, once they’re back in the Capitol, anything can happen. Any legislator at any point during the session could bring a new issue to the table. Senate President Mark Blasdel explains.

“Each legislator has concerns and issues that they would like to bring forward, which can result in a special session kind of getting away from you. And there’s a lot of legislators that have that concern.”

Freddy Monares: Were there hints that the session was likely to expand outside of that one issue?

Shaylee Ragar: Well, a group of Republicans, led by Rep. Derek Skees from Kalispell, lobbied hard for a broader agenda. They wanted to create a special committee to investigate Montana’s election integrity — I will note, there’s no evidence to suggest that Montana’s elections are not secure.

Republican leaders pushed back against Skees’ proposal, questioning his plan’s scope and cost. They also claimed the legislature passed several laws last session that made elections safer.

Rep. Skees made an effort to gain support for his proposal by circulating a letter he planned to send to Gov. Greg Gianforte. Last Friday, he announced there was not enough traction and he pulled the plug on that.

So there were clear factions of Republicans wanting different things, and outside of content, the cost of a special session itself prevented others from getting on board.

Freddy Monares: I think it’s important to note, too, that Rep. Skees is running for a seat on the Public Service Commission. Let’s talk about why the Public Service Commission is important and where the district map stands now that lawmakers are unlikely to change it in the near future.

Shaylee Ragar: The Public Service Commission is the board that oversees utility companies in the state and how much they charge ratepayers. It’s split into five districts, and Montanans elect their regional commissioner. Those districts have not been redrawn since 2003, and a group of voters is suing, saying that violates the constitutional right to one-person one-vote.

Freddy Monares: Can you explain that?

Shaylee Ragar: The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution aims to make sure that all citizens have the same voting power, so districts are supposed to be relatively equal in population. I talked with Christina Barsky, a University of Montana professor of public administration, and she explained what happens when they’re not equal in population.

“So that means that some districts have much more power, right, so there’s fewer people that are in them represented by an individual compared to some of the other parts of the state that have had faster population growth, so they’ve got more people and less representation.”

The panel of three federal judges overseeing the lawsuit has said the current district lines are likely unconstitutional, and have indicated they will redraw the districts before the 2022 election. Two PSC districts will be on that ballot. But Montana Republican lawmakers have said that responsibility should lie with them, and have been exploring the possibility of a special session. Here’s Senate President Blasdel again:

“Obviously, it’s of serious concern to have federal judges drawing election maps for state races.”

Freddy Monares: Big picture – what do new PSC district lines mean for Montanans?

Shaylee Ragar: The hope is to give voters all over the state equal weight in the election. And there could also be some political implications, as well. Again, University of Montana professor Barsky:

“At this point, there are no Democratic representatives on the PSC. And so there’s not just a concern about population representation and the 14th Amendment, there’s a question about how these districts are drawn and who’s included and counted and then who those individuals are electing. Are we choosing our electors or our electors choosing their representatives?”

The panel of three federal judges will hold their next hearing on the matter next week.

Freddy Monares: Shaylee, thanks so much for your reporting.

Shaylee Ragar: Thank you, Freddy.

Freddy Monares is a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.