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Campaign Beat: Property taxes, contrasting ads and the Gianforte name

CI-121 draws bipartisan opposition. Matt Rosendale worries an independent candidate in his race could help Democrats. New campaign ads take both a humorous and hard-hitting approach. And Montana State University is urged not to name a new building after the sitting governor and his family.

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 Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department.

Sally Mauk Holly, a court ruling this week will allow supporters of Constitutional Initiative 121 to go ahead and collect signatures to try to get it on the ballot. And CI-121, if passed, would cap property taxes. But a lot of folks, both Democrats and Republicans, think that's a bad idea.

Holly Michels Yeah, it's a pretty complex proposal. At its most basic, it does what you said, cap property taxes. It does that by reverting residential property taxes to 2019 values over time, puts a limit on how much they can increase going forward. And then assessed values would also jump anytime a property's sold or there's something like new construction.

And again, like you said, opposition to this proposal is one of the few things these days where we're seeing people from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature come together. You're hearing from Republicans, Democrats, and then also interest groups who are kind of all across the spectrum. Their concerns for this proposal, they worry it will shift the tax burden to somewhere else or cause cuts in services that are paid for with property taxes. You know, if the taxes are capped, but we have continuing population growth, more demand, that needs to be paid for somehow. The group who brought this initiative, they disagree with that assessment. And they also point out the Legislature's been pressed to take action on property taxes, but failed to do that in recent sessions. And we heard two Republican legislators in mid-April acknowledge that and say, you know, if this initiative doesn't end up passing, they really need to do something in the upcoming session in 2023 to head off another attempt like this.

So, we did see a unanimous vote through a legislative interim committee to make clear that they oppose this initiative. And that's where things get a little convoluted. Like you said, a judge in Helena is letting signature gathering continue for this. What happened is, a group opposed to this initiative sued, saying that two things hadn't happened that need to before signature gathering happens; that's this committee vote which would appear on the petition that people signed to get this on the ballot, and then the attorney general has to come in and do an assessment of if the proposal would cause any harm to business interests. But what the judge found is that the new law that created those two steps, the committee vote and the AG's actions only apply to ballot initiatives that are aimed at changing state statute, not the Constitution, like this one is. So we are seeing signature gathering going forward. I talked with supporters of this initiative and they said the weather's kind of hampered their efforts a little bit, but they expect to be out on doors soon gathering signatures.

Sally Mauk We'll see if they get enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

Rob, Congressman Matt Rosendale is running to be reelected in what is now the Eastern District. He put out a press release this week asserting Democrats have, "found an independent to run against him." And Rosendale thinks the idea is to help elect a Democrat. And he's referring to the recent entry into the race of independent candidate Gary Buchanan. And it sounds to me like, Rob, he's taking Buchanan's candidacy very seriously.

Rob Saldin Yeah, maybe so, Sally. I mean, the other thing it could be is just an opportunistic ploy to raise some money, you know, rather than a clear indication that he's worried. You know, as we've talked about before, Rosendale really shouldn't have much to be worried about here. He's the Republican in an overwhelmingly Republican district. And all the national trends are pushing in the Republicans' favor, from the midterm dynamic that favors the party not controlling the White House, to President Biden's approval numbers, to inflation concerns and so on. He really should be able to sleepwalk to another term here. But that said, and as we've also at least briefly touched on in past weeks, he has aligned himself quite clearly with the party's hard right, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Madison Cawthorns, the Lauren Boeberts. Now to be sure, Rosendale doesn't quite engage in the ridiculous culture war theatrics of those folks, but he's cast his lot with them and the people who insist Joe Biden stole the election and who are sympathetic to the January 6 coup attempt and so forth. Those are his people. More recently on Ukraine, he's been part of what's been described as the GOP's 'Putin caucus,' and he's attacked Zelensky, and that stuff is way out of step with public opinion. So even in a very red district, at some point, one can go a bit too far. But even so, it's a heavy lift for his opponents. And it seems too, that the entry of Buchanan probably works to his advantage in a certain way, to the extent that if the opposition to him is divided between two candidates, Buchanan and whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is, and you have three people appearing on the ballot, that seems to me to be a dynamic that would favor Rosendale if the opposition to him is split between two candidates. So it seems to me that that opposition would want to consolidate behind one of those two alternatives, not be split.

Sally Mauk Holly, Meanwhile, two of the Democrats running in the Western Congressional District, Cora Neumann and Monica Tranel, each have a new second TV ad out, and Newman's ad features her grandmother Noonie.

Sally Mauk This ad, Holly, is all warm and fuzzy, but it also scores some points on public lands and health care.

Holly Michels Yeah, it does. To me a couple of things stood out here, and we talked about on previous shows, part of this, you know, in this race, the idea of who's the most authentic Montanans going to be something that comes up in the primary general election. So, you know, again, we see Neumann trying to counter digs that have been made against her for moving back to Montana in 2019 before a Senate run in 2020. Her first ad pointed to this little house in Bozeman, where she said she lived when she was young. This one's got an image of Neumann, you know, ski bib from Bridger Bowl, which I think is a pretty standard photo. Lots of kids who grew up in Bozeman have. There's a similar one of my husband floating around. This ad also kind of fits in with that genre of an ad I think we see a fair amount, which is the 'I hate political ads, ads,' and has a salty grandmother, which is kind of a fun, you know, kind of hard to not find that cute. But then it does transition into your grandmother, you know, talking about her as a kid and how that's carried into work on public lands now, which, like you said, is a pretty core thing for Democrats and Republicans in any cycle. And then gets into work Neumann did during the pandemic delivering COVID aid to rural communities, which, you know, public health is an issue, I think, where Neumann's probably strongest on, just given her professional background. So that makes a lot of sense here.

One thing that kind of caught me watching this ad is COVID coming up, and you know, Neumann did do a lot of work there on it, but you see the candidate wearing a face covering a couple times during this ad, and you know, at the time when that ad was being delivered, that was one of the few measures we had to slow the spread of COVID in a pre-vaccine world. But just given what a hot-button issue I think masking has become now, that kind of jumped out at me. But then again, this is a Democratic primary, so a lot different crowd than the general election. So a pretty interesting ad.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, Monica Tranel's ad has a totally different look and tone than Neumann's. Here's that ad.

Sally Mauk Rob, this ad shows Tranel taking a big shovel and scooping up a big and apparently real snake and carrying it off.

Rob Saldin Right. You know, unlike the Neumann ad, as Holly noted, which is a classic positive ad oriented toward boosting awareness of her and establishing some positive connotations, Tranel's new ad is a classic contrast ad. It's hard hitting, and I think it works pretty well for Tranel. To get to the general election, of course, Holly, as you note, you've got to win the Democratic nomination first. And certainly among Democrats, Zinke is very unpopular for, among other things, the scandals that Tranel hits on here. I think it packs a punch, but these days it's not anything that would be considered over the top, I don't think. And Tranel's message here may very well be just the kind of thing that Democratic primary voters are looking for. You know, not so much a happy, feel good kind of message, but portraying somebody who has the ability and who has the desire to stick it to Ryan Zinke.

Sally Mauk Lastly, Holly and Rob, there's a fight brewing at Montana State University over whether to name a building Gianforte Hall. And this would be to honor a $50 million gift from the Gianforte Family Foundation. And Holly, opponents of the naming argue, for one thing, that it would violate a policy the Board of Regents have in place about donations from public officials.

Holly Michels Yeah, the regents, who are the governing body for the university system, have a policy that says a building can't be named after an elected official until they've been out of office at least a year. And this is pretty similar to rules that we see around things like naming federal buildings. And the one thing about the regents policy, it does give some leeway here. It says something about if a gift is especially large, it might be reason to break that policy. MSU has said that this gift of $50 million is tied for second largest in school history, and some regions have said maybe that my warrant an exception to the policy here. We also heard criticism about some of these regents that are making this decision have actually been appointed by Gianforte after he took office in 2021. I think an interesting thing to point out, Gianforte, too, is, in 2016, he gave a gift of $8 million that created a future endowment for what became the Gianforte School of Computing. And that at the time had a lot of critics, too, because that decision was made in May of the year of his first gubernatorial bid.

Sally Mauk Rob, the other objections center around arguments that Governor Gianforte and his foundation's views do not align with MSU's, especially regarding diversity and inclusion.

Rob Saldin Right. And, you know, it's probably worth noting here at the outset that this rather awkward situation has a couple of sides to it that are worth laying out. You know, on the one hand, there is just the basic financial reality here. MSU and the Montana University System are not so flush with cash that they can be turning down gifts like this. It's one thing, maybe if you're Harvard with an endowment of $50 billion or whatever it is, but that's clearly not the case here. And state support for higher education is quite limited in Montana. So outside funding is just absolutely essential for these institutions. Now, the other case, of course, is that it's awkward and it looks bad. Dave Parker, my cross-state colleague and friend at MSU, gave one of a number of articulations of this viewpoint this week. And you're right, Sally, I mean, part of that concerns values around diversity and inclusion and equity. The other argument, though, is that MSU is a public state institution and Gianforte is the governor of the state, and it looks like something of a corrupt deal in which MSU gets a pile of money and the governor gets to use the university as a prop to garner some good press for himself. And it looks perhaps like an endorsement of the sitting governor. And this particular governor, of course, as critics of the deal have outlined, is a controversial figure who's had a few minor scandals and one major scandal for, of all things, an act of political violence on his part. So that's just going to rub some people the wrong way. And some people will point out, well, there's a distinction between the Gianforte Foundation and Governor Gianforte, which is true, and in a technical sense, important. But that's not going to provide a whole lot of relief or peace of mind to those who recognize that both the governor and the foundation share the name Gianforte.

Sally Mauk Well, this is unusual because Montana has never had a officeholder as wealthy as Mr. Gianforte and able to give those kind of gifts.

Rob and Holly, our time is up. Thank you. I'll talk to you next week.

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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