Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, took to social media Tuesday asking Montanans to urge their state lawmakers to sign a letter asking Gov. Greg Gianforte to call a special session of the Montana Legislature. The letter outlines two specific actions such a session would take: drawing new election districts for the Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies in Montana, and establishing a special committee with subpoena powers to investigate election integrity in the state. Skees stated in the post that the letter would be delivered to Gianforte Friday.

“If you agree these two issues are critical to Montana’s future, then please reach out to your House and Senate Legislators and tell them to sign the letter, and then call the governor’s office and thank him for helping Montana address these pressing concerns,” Skees Facebook post said.

Both issues cited in the letter have become flashpoints in state politics, and each has fueled pressure from separate groups of hardline Republicans to call all 150 state legislators back to Helena.

In the case of the PSC districts, ongoing litigation will likely result in a federal court prohibiting Montana from using its current 20-year-old PSC map in the 2022 election. The options available to lawmakers are to call a special session to redraw the map themselves ahead of the March 14 filing deadline for 2022 candidates, or stand aside as the court weighs mapping proposals submitted as part of the case. The latter notion has rankled some Republican legislators including Skees, who is termed out of the House and running for a seat on the PSC this year, a position that carries an annual salary of $112,443. 

“If and when the Legislature has demonstrated ample support for a Public Service Commission (PSC) map and an agreement a special session’s single focus will be limited to PSC districts, I am willing to call a special session for the sole purpose of PSC redistricting and any statutory requirements associated with a legislative session.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte

Skees told Montana Free Press last month that he’s concerned the court may select a map that pits him against incumbent commissioner and fellow Republican Randy Pinocci of Sun River. Skees did not immediately return a voicemail requesting comment on Tuesday’s Facebook post and the attached letter, which also asked Gianforte to set a date for a special session no later than Feb. 28, “since there is such a time sensitive requirement.”

On the election integrity front, 86 of Montana’s 98 GOP lawmakers submitted a letter to Republican leadership in the House and Senate last October requesting the creation of a joint special committee to probe the state’s 2020 election. That request was complicated by a subsequent memo from a legislative staff attorney stating that the formation of such a committee requires the approval of the entire Legislature, meaning any attempt to create one before the 2023 session would necessitate a special session. The memo also estimated that the first day of a special session would cost $108,003, and each subsequent day at least $56,685.

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, and Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, are among the Legislature’s most vocal advocates for an investigation of Montana’s election processes. They pressed members of the Legislative Council in December to either appoint a committee composed exclusively of state senators or poll legislators about calling a special session. The two also requested that leadership secure funding to support the committee’s work, with Tschida estimating the total cost at about $50,000.

Neither Manzella nor Tschida returned voicemail messages Tuesday seeking comment on the letter’s inclusion of a special committee on election integrity. Tschida, who has repeatedly alleged discrepancies in Missoula County’s 2020 election results, will reach the end of his final term in the House this year and has filed to run in Misssoula’s Senate District 49, a seat currently held by termed-out Democrat Diane Sands.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott of Helena told MTFP Tuesday that Skees’ letter went out to legislators via email Monday night, and that she’d spoken with members of her caucus after receiving it. According to Abbott, there is “not much appetite” for a special session to deal with PSC redistricting, and House Democrats don’t object to waiting until the 2023 session to discuss changes to the PSC map without a pressing deadline.

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“Republicans were in charge of the Legislature for all five opportunities that we’ve had to address PSC districts, and now that we’re inside a month to the filing deadline, rushing through a redistricting process that will have a negative impact on the public’s ability to participate isn’t something that we should be spending money on,” Abbott said.

Gianforte, a Republican, sent a letter of his own to Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt Tuesday reiterating his position on calling a special session. Gianforte wrote that he takes considerations about taxpayer resources and citizen legislators’ non-legislative responsibilities seriously, and as such, “I do not take calling a special session lightly.”

“My position is clear,” Gianforte continued. “If and when the Legislature has demonstrated ample support for a Public Service Commission (PSC) map and an agreement a special session’s single focus will be limited to PSC districts, I am willing to call a special session for the sole purpose of PSC redistricting and any statutory requirements associated with a legislative session.” 

Gianforte’s letter did not address or mention the requested special committee on election integrity.

Blasdel and Galt responded directly to Skees’ draft letter Tuesday by sending a letter to all members of the 67th Legislature. The two agreed with Gianforte about calling a special session to address PSC redistricting. However, Blasdel and Galt wrote, they continue to seek clarity on a list of questions regarding the request for an election investigation committee, including its scope and goals, what investigative powers it would need, and whether the votes exist to establish and fund it based on the answers to those questions. They also inquired as to the precise cost of such a committee, noting that they’ve “heard different price tags ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 according to different legislators.”

“Legislators should have a clear and full understanding of the special select committee proposal prior to being expected to sign onto a letter calling for a special session addressing that topic,” Blasdel and Galt wrote. “As we all agree that being responsible stewards of taxpayer money is of the utmost importance, it’s also important for legislators to have a full understanding of the financial aspect of the proposal.”

MTFP will update this story as more information is available.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...