Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

An effort to garner lawmaker support for a special session of the Montana Legislature to tackle two hot-button issues missed its stated deadline this week. In an unsigned letter emailed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office Friday by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, Republican lawmakers involved in the attempt wrote that they were unable to gain majority support for such a session in either the House or Senate, and opted not to “submit the failed attempt to you.”

The two goals Skees and his colleagues had set for a special session were to draw new election districts for the Public Service Commission, which regulates Montana utility companies, and to create a special committee with subpoena powers to investigate election integrity in the state. Gianforte and Republican legislative leadership expressed support this week for a single-issue special session addressing PSC redistricting, but neither was prepared to tackle the issue of a special committee to investigate election integrity.

Despite the failed effort this week, the letter sent to Gianforte Friday indicated that the organizing legislators are “very close” to securing broad support for a new PSC district map, which would offer lawmakers an alternative to a court-ordered map likely to stem from ongoing litigation in federal court. In an interview with Montana Free Press Friday, Skees said the push will now shift to calling for a single-issue session aimed at approving a map before the March 14 filing deadline for 2022 candidates. 

“We all agree we cannot let a federal judge break our Constitution and draw our map,” Skees said.

Skees, who has already filed to run for a PSC seat in the Flathead, added that the map currently attracting the most support among Republicans will likely put him out of contention in a district that overlaps with a seat currently held by incumbent Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, which is not up for election this cycle. 

Skees declined to give a precise number of how many Republican legislators had signed on to the double-issue special session proposal this week, but said the total was around 50, with Senate Pro Tempore Jason Ellsworth, Sen. Gordon Vance of Belgrade and four House majority whips among them.

 “It’s honestly pathetic and sad that this entire caucus, we have 67 freaking Republicans in the House, and we can’t even agree that we should investigate election integrity, just to prove that maybe it’s not there? That’s incredibly frustrating to me.”

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Skees indicated he had yet to hear from 44 of the Legislature’s 98 Republicans in response to his call for signatures. Skees’ post called on constituents to contact the named legislators and included their telephone numbers, along with the names and numbers of 10 Democrats from the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus.

“We haven’t had a reply yet from any Democrat (no surprise to all), and think perhaps folks could try and reach out to the Democrat Tribal Folks, as they are always concerned about election issues and should be with us on this effort,” Skees’ post said. “Perhaps with your support, they would find the courage to stand up to the Democrat Caucus.”

In response to Skees’ draft letter earlier this week, Gianforte voiced support for a special session provided it be focused solely on the PSC redistricting issue. Republican leadership echoed that position, and also expressed concern that key questions about the specific intent of and funding for the proposed election integrity committee remained unanswered. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott told MTFP on Tuesday there is “not much appetite” among Democrats for a special session on PSC redistricting, and that her caucus’ opposition to an election integrity committee was unchanged.

Letters exchanged in the past few days between Skees and the Legislature’s top two Republicans, Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt, show Skees attempting to win over leadership — and how those attempts were rebuffed. In replying to a list of questions from Blasdel and Galt, Skees noted that the special elections committee would require the power to issue subpoenas and “take sworn testimonies under oath.” Citing the party’s two-thirds majority in the Legislature, Skees speculated that “the votes to accomplish this goal exist.” Skees replied to a question about the scope and goals of the proposed committee with a single sentence: 

“Upholding our oath to the Montana Constitution, Article IV, Section 3, we must insure the purity of elections and guard against abuses of the electoral process.”

In his response, Skees also estimated the total funding needed for the committee at as much as $250,000. That figure, he wrote, includes $50,000 for legal staff costs, $50,000 for anticipated travel expenses and $50,000 for “expert witnesses.”

“Mr. President and Mr. Speaker,” Skees wrote, “please quantify the value of legitimate, free and fair elections. Is $250k a worthwhile investment of our tax revenues into ending election corruption?”

Blasdel and Galt addressed Skees’ answers Thursday in a letter to all Republican lawmakers reiterating their concern about “lack of specificity.” The two wrote that Skees had not explained how the committee would uphold the Legislature’s constitutional obligation, and they questioned Skees’ proposed funding requirements, noting in regard to expert witnesses that the Legislature “doesn’t normally pay people to testify before us.”

“We are seeking these details about the election integrity proposal because special sessions are too short to make a plan on the fly, and we also don’t think legislators should be expected to sign a letter without understanding the plan they are signing onto,” Blasdel and Galt wrote. “We want caucus members to be able to make a fully informed decision.”

Blasdel and Galt also provided answers to five questions Skees had posed to them. In those answers, they mentioned that Republican leaders had “nearly reached consensus” on a special session strictly about PSC redistricting during a meeting in January, “but a senator walked out of the room over the issue of an election special committee and no agreement was reached.” In one of his questions, Skees suggested that even if a single-issue special session were called, the issue of a special election committee could be raised on a procedural vote. To that point, Blasdel and Galt replied that regardless of how the proposal is raised, the need for a specific plan remains.

“Legislators shouldn’t be expected to vote on a $250,000 appropriation without understanding how that money will be used and what projects or policy proposals such a committee would be undertaking,” they wrote.

Speaking subsequently with MTFP, Skees said that if a single-issue session is called to deal with PSC redistricting, the special election committee issue will not be raised. He did, however, say that he and other hardline Republicans are not done with the election integrity issue.

“We’re not going to play games, we’ll just do the single-issue thing, we’ll fix the PSC map, and the conservatives of our caucus will try to figure a different way to make it work for Montana,” Skees said. “It’s honestly pathetic and sad that this entire caucus, we have 67 freaking Republicans in the House, and we can’t even agree that we should investigate election integrity, just to prove that maybe it’s not there? That’s incredibly frustrating to me.”

Following Skees’ Friday concession, Blasdel and Galt issued the following statement via email reaffirming their exclusive focus on PSC redistricting.

“Special sessions take a lot of agreement and coordination to pull together. Democrats have said they’re fine with liberal and California judges drawing Montana’s maps, so Republican leadership has been working hard for months to get consensus among the diverse Republican caucus. Whether it’s in a special session or during the next regular session, Republicans are going to reform the system to ensure federal judges can’t interfere in Montana’s PSC elections again.”

Several bills proposed in prior Republican-majority legislative sessions would have either reapportioned PSC districts directly, specified a redistricting process for the commission, or otherwise restructured the body. None of them passed into law.

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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...