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Backers of property tax cap initiative ask Supreme Court to allow signature gathering

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Montana Supreme Court

The Montana Department of Justice says the Montana Supreme Court should overturn its 1999 decision regarding access to abortion.

One of the backers of an initiative aiming to cap property taxes in Montana is asking the state Supreme Court to reverse a lower court’s block on collecting signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton, a former state GOP lawmaker, made the emergency filing Friday. It came a day after Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Michael McMahon granted a request blocking signature gathering. That came from groups that sued to challenge the state Attorney General and Secretary of State approving the initiative for the signature-gathering process to qualify for the ballot.

The proposed Constitutional Initiative 121 would cap the rate of property tax growth in Montana. Monforton and state Auditor Troy Downing submitted the proposed constitutional initiative to the Secretary of State’s office. They were named as defendants in the initial lawsuit, along with the Attorney General and Secretary of State.

Backers of initiatives must gather a set amount of signatures to get on the ballot after the language of their proposal is approved by the Attorney General and Secretary of State.

The lawsuit was filed by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana Farmers Union and two Montana citizens. It alleges that Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen did not complete requirements of House Bill 651, passed by the Legislature and signed into law last year.

HB 651, brought by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, inserts the Legislature into the initiative process and expands the role of the attorney general. The law restricts the secretary of state from approving a ballot initiative for signature gathering until a legislative interim committee weighs in via a vote, which must appear on the signature-gathering petition. The law further requires the attorney general to analyze and include a warning should the initiative have a negative effect on business.

The lawsuit notes that neither the legislative vote nor business impact analysis took place with CI 121. Including that information would help voters make an informed decision when deciding whether to sign, the lawsuit states. 

Spokespeople for Jacobsen and Knudsen said Thursday that HB 651 applies only to statutory initiatives and did not change Montana’s code concerning constitutional initiatives.

“Our shared understanding with Legislative Services Division is that there is no requirement for interim committee review for Constitutional Initiatives,” Jacobsen spokesperson Richie Melby said in an email.

Knudsen spokesperson Kyler Nierson said the attorney general reached the same conclusion during legal review of the bill.

“The Attorney General’s Office fulfilled its legal obligation to review the measure,” he said in an email. “Attorney General Knudsen is committed to the rule of law and is not going to exceed the authority that the legislature delegated. As stated in the legal sufficiency review, the law gives the attorney general the power to make a ‘significant material harm’ finding for statutory initiatives but does not do so for constitutional initiatives.”

In his request to the state’s high court, Monforton wrote that “hundreds of Montanans” have downloaded a form he posted to a website promoting the initiative gather signatures and are circulating it.

“Every day that passes while the district court’s unlawful injunction remains in effect is a day that Monforton, the sponsor of CI-121, cannot enlist the aid of Montana voters to petition their government … ” Monforton wrote. “Every day that goes by without signature-gathering is a day that cannot be reclaimed. Requiring this matter to drag on indefinitely the district court will likely prove fatal to Monforton’s efforts to successfully obtain an adequate number of signatures to qualify CI-121 for the ballot.”

Monforton also argued the state supreme court has “exclusive” jurisdiction to review the legal sufficiency determinations related to ballot initiatives. He also said that opponents cannot challenge the legal sufficiency determination until the Secretary of State certifies the initiative to the governor, which won’t happen until July 15, if enough signatures are gathered.

“The district court has absolutely no authority to issue this order,” Monforton wrote. “As a result, thousands of Montanans are being denied an opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Monforton also wrote the district court gave him “absolutely no notice” before issuing the temporary restraining order.

The petition states that property tax revenue under the initiative will go down by $24 million in 2025, $34 million in 2026 and $29 million in 2027. “CI-121 will also have an undetermined impact on local government and school district tax revenue, subject to legislative action,” the statement reads.

A district court hearing is set for Jan. 24. The state Supreme Court did not take action on Monforton's filing Friday.

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State Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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