Fresh off Monday’s news that Montana’s gained a second U.S. House seat, Republican lawmakers Tuesday passed a proposal to give the Legislature more input on how the state is drawn into two districts. Opponents say the move is unconstitutional.
The proposal was tacked on as an amendment to another bill regulating elections. It adds new criteria that an independent commission would be required to follow when drawing the state’s new congressional districts.
The amended bill cleared five procedural votes along party lines in one day as lawmakers rush to finish their work before the session ends. It’s now headed to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte for consideration.
Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick brought the original amendment.
“People are concerned that we may not get fair districts, we may get some very gerrymandered districts and this will just ensure that the districts are drawn correctly,” Fitzpatrick said.
Montana’s Districting and Apportionment Commission was created by the state’s 1972 Constitution. It’s made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and a nonpartisan presiding officer who are charged with drawing the state’s districts.
According to a memo prepared by legislative staff last June, Montana’s Legislature in 2003 passed a bill dictating how the Districting and Apportionment Commission should function. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law, writing that the Constitution “assigned the task of redistricting to the Commission — an independent autonomous entity — and limited the Legislature's role to that of making recommendations.”
The memo states the commission was created to “bypass the Legislature” during the redistricting process.
Democratic Sen. Bryce Bennett brought up this precedent in committee and said Fitzpatrick’s amendment won’t stand up to legal challenge.
“No matter what we think, it really doesn’t matter, because the Constitution is very, very clear that we don’t have a role as the Legislature in the redistricting process,” Bennett said.
Once the commission finishes drawing the districts, it will send a draft to the Legislature. According to the memo, Lawmakers then have the authority to recommend the draft if they choose, but do not have the power to amend or alter the plan.