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'The Great American Middle'; Zinke's ethics violations; Will voters upend the tax system?

A former Republican governor of Montana chastises his party for downplaying the January 6th insurrection. A former Republican congressman (and current congressional candidate) from Montana is chastised for ethics violations. And voters may see an initiative on the ballot that could lower their property taxes and hurt funding for local services.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin. Sitting in this week for Holly is Lee's Deputy Bureau Chief Tom Kuglin.

Sally Mauk Rob, Former Montana Governor Marc Racicot has been in the news lately because of recent appearances and a letter he wrote to the current head of his Republican Party, criticizing the party's censure of two of its members and the party's embrace of Trumpism. Before we discuss that, I want to mention that Racicot is on the board of the Mansfield Center, where you work, Rob, and that you saw Racicot's letter before it was published, correct?

Rob Saldin Yeah, that's right, Sally. Marc and I do work together at the Mansfield Center where he's on our board, and I did see a draft of the letter before it was sent. He'd asked me what I thought and I gave him some suggestions on minor edits, that kind of thing. But this was very much Marc's letter.

Sally Mauk I wanted to make sure the listeners understood that before we discussed the letter.

Racicot has long been a critic of Donald Trump, Rob, since Trump first ran for president. He didn't vote for him, but this is several steps further, chastising his own party for its response, Among other things, to the January 6th insurrection.

Rob Saldin Right. And I do think that's the key part of the backdrop. I mean, what's changed here is the January 6th insurrection. And the more that we've learned about that since that time, the worse it seems. And of course, you do have two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, serving on that committee, and they've come under fire, serious fire, from the National Party, most recently, with this RNC censure of them that seemed to suggest that the people there in Washington on January 6th were engaged in normal political behavior. And so Racicot, I think, is responding to that. And what's different here is that it's not just Trump who seems to be OK with that. It's now the Republican National Committee. And of course, he was the chair of that committee some years ago. So this is an institution he's familiar with and very much in his wheelhouse.

Sally Mauk Racicot has joined a small but growing number of Republicans, as you mentioned, criticizing the party's response to January 6. But Montana's Republican leaders, Rob, with one exception, have been noticeably silent on Racicot's letter. And that one exception is Matt Rosendale, who's all-in with Trump and with calling the January 6th investigation a witch hunt.

Rob Saldin Yeah, yeah. Rosendale came out with that statement, and I haven't seen the other leading Republicans respond to it one way or another.

I did see Aaron Flint, who has a statewide talk radio show on the AM dial, he kind of sneeringly dismissed it, in good a.m. talk radio form. But his underlying point, it seems to me, wasn't altogether without merit and was certainly different than Rosendale, who just said basically that the censure was entirely appropriate. But Aaron Flint said basically that, look, it's been a long time since Racicot was governor, or chair of the Republican National Committee, for that matter. And there's some truth in that. For a lot of years Racicot was back in Washington and kept a pretty low profile after he stepped down from the RNC. He was a remarkably popular governor. I mean, in a way that's just inconceivable now. But still, some Montana's voters, you know, aren't going to have real firm memories of Racicot's time in office. And in a similar vein, you know, I'd say today's Republican Party is just very different from the one that Racicot was a part of. This isn't his party, it's not Bob Brown's GOP anymore.

Nonetheless, though, Sally, I do think a statement like this from someone with Racicot's history and prominence in Republican politics can have an impact that demonstrates that not all Republicans are just uniformly lockstep on board with this, and in making that a contested space within the party. Right? Even if it's a distinctly minority space, making it a contested space can create a kind of permission structure that allows others in the party to feel like it's OK to raise a question about this stuff and to push back a bit, right? It sends a signal that it's OK to object, and that can be important in these kinds of situations.

Sally Mauk Well, we'll have to wait and see how that evolves, if the number of Republicans, like former governor Racicot, do join that bandwagon or not.

And we should also mention that Governor Racicot, although popular while in office, gained some enemies when he promoted deregulation in the state, so there's still some hard feelings about that.

Tom, another prominent Republican making headlines this week is former Congressman and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who's running now for the Western congressional seat. And a report released by the inspector general of the Interior Department says Zinke committed numerous ethics violations while he was secretary.

Tom Kuglin So, the inspector general report from Interior found that Zinke, he misused his position and then provided incorrect or incomplete information to investigators. This was over his involvement in a commercial land development project in Whitefish. Zinke, he was president of the Great Northern Peace Park Foundation, which in 2008 received several acres of donated land in Whitefish for development of the park. It now includes a sledding hill, pretty popular spot in Whitefish. After Zinke won election to Congress for the second time, he was nominated, obviously, by the former President Donald Trump, to head the Interior Department. And at that time, for ethics reasons, he agreed to break ties with the foundation. But the inspector general report says Zinke continued to engage developers and "repeated ongoing substantive negotiations" over potential the use of the property for a project called 95 Karrow" that included a microbrewery.

The report says Zinke exchanged over 64 emails and text messages with developers that included one email in which Zinke is alleged to have asked for exclusive rights to produce alcohol. So it's not entirely clear if he wanted to actually operate the microbrewery himself, but that's sort of what the report indicates. The report further says that Zinke directed his staff at Interior to assist him in arranging meetings with developers. And then the report says when Zinke was questioned by ethics officials, he denied that he was involved with the project, which officials said was a misrepresentation.

Zinke's campaign has attacked the release of the report and said it's a political hit job. They accuse current officials at Interior of basically sitting on the report for months, even though the original inspector general that authored a report was a Trump appointee, [Zinke] is saying its current officials are making it political.

Sally Mauk What we should emphasize There is no indication of criminal acts in this report. It's all ethics violations.

Tom Kuglin That's correct. So inspectors did not find that Zinke violated any conflict of interest laws. This was referred to the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has declined to prosecute for any of the violations named in the report.

Sally Mauk So Rob, what do you think the political fallout will be for Zinke and his effort to get elected to Congress again? Will there be any?

Rob Saldin Well, we'll have to wait and see, Sally. You know, as Tom says, there's a lot in that report. And the thing that stands out to me is that this report didn't just emerge out of thin air. It's piling on top of what had already become a pretty clear narrative about who Zinke is and how he conducts himself in public office. There's just been so much of this, and now with this report, there's some pretty damning evidence to back it up. So it makes it a little harder to excuse, you know, one or two things as an honest mistake here, or a moment of sloppiness there, that kind of thing.

But that said, you know, it's not altogether clear to me that this will hurt Zinke all that much. You know, so much of our politics is entrenched and dug in at this point that there are just relatively few persuadable voters. And by that, I just mean that the people who are most likely to be appalled by this story were never going to vote for Zinke anyway. And many Zinke supporters simply won't care about any of this or will accept his narrative that he's the real victim here. But, you know, Sally, I do think this is the moment for his opponents to strike, and we're clearly going to be hearing about this a lot on the campaign trail. The Democrats are all over it.

The thing I was most curious about when this came out was how Zinke's main primary opponent, Al Olszewski, would respond. And he pounced on this, you know, calling Zinke a dishonest man. Al Olszewski said that Zinke is one of the most corrupt people in Washington. So he's clearly not holding back. So that kind of throws a wrench, potentially into Zinke's effort to portray this all as a partisan witch hunt on the part of Democrats. So we'll have to see.

You know, one thing to remember here, Sally is just that Zinke still has these formidable advantages in terms of name recognition, the R next to his name, his association with Trump, money and so on. But this does, I would think, give his opponents a little glimmer of hope.

Sally Mauk Well at the very least, there will be some interesting campaign ads from Zinke's opposition.

Rob Saldin You can count on it.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Tom, voters could see a constitutional initiative on the November ballot if supporters of CI-121 get enough signatures and if it survives a court challenge. And this initiative is intended to limit property tax increases. But opponents argue it would have far more dire consequences.

Tom Kuglin So, at its core, constitutional initiative 121 would set a baseline for residential property taxes and then limit how much they could grow over time. The initiative would make two fundamental changes to the property tax structure. First, it would cap the growth of property tax assessments over time. So in 2025, assessments would revert to their 2019 market value, and reassessments would be limited to two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The initiative would also limit mills that could be levied by local governments to one percent of the residential property's value. Supporters of CI-121 include prominent Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton and state auditor Troy Downing. They argue that growth of property taxes is so out of control that it threatens to tax people out of their homes, particularly with surging property values and the increase in the share of investors in housing markets. They also say the Legislature has just failed to rein in the problem, and they really have no choice but to bring the citizen initiative process forward.

[For opponents], it's a pretty interesting coalition, it includes local governments, business interests, unions. They say it basically would upend Montana's tax structure, it would threaten funding for important services and would have major consequences for the Legislature, faced with basically an unworkable revenue situation. Opponents also say the initiative is likely a tax shift, it would place a bigger burden on businesses and other nonresidential property.

Supporters would basically need to get more than 60,000 signatures, with enough coming from various parts of the state, by June 17th in order to get that on the ballot. Interestingly, the initiative is in court right now. It's gained a lot of attention as opponents challenge the process that saw it approved for signature gathering. Last session, the Legislature passed a new law that inserts lawmakers into the process. It says that initiatives must go to an interim committee where lawmakers will be able to weigh in with a vote on whether they approve or disapprove. It also says the attorney general must analyze whether the initiative would negatively affect business interests, and both of those pieces of information must then appear on the petition for people who are signing to see and get that information. But the attorney general and legislative services have said that only applies to statutory initiative, not constitutional initiatives. So, we'll have to see how that plays out in court. Signatures are being allowed to [be gathered] under the latest court decision.

Sally Mauk Rob CI-121 is part of a general anti-tax, anti-government-overreach tradition that really isn't new or unique to Montana, is it?

Rob Saldin No, it's not Sally, a lot of history there. I thought Eric Dietrich at the Montana Free Press had a good longform piece on this this week in which he made the apt comparison to Prop. 13 in California that was passed way back in 1978. The key takeaway, I'd say, is that Prop 13 created some pretty serious chaos in California in terms of budgeting. Initially, for instance, property tax revenue declined by 60 percent. So that's obviously an enormous hole that has to get filled somehow. And so the question is, where does that come from? And I think here in Montana — we don't have a sales tax, we're just one of a few states that doesn't have a sales tax — and so that raises the prospect that's concerning to at least some Democrats and some Republicans that it could force the state to adopt a sales tax and perhaps a much larger one than has been floated in the past.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob and Tom, we covered a lot of ground this week. We're out of time. Thank you so much.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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