Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

The Legislature’s joint committee on redistricting will hold public testimony and adopt a resolution next week to provide feedback on how Montana establishes its new legislative districts, the chair of the committee said during its first meeting Thursday. 

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said he expects the committee to field public comment in a meeting on Jan. 17, and then receive testimony from Districting and Apportionment Commission Chair Maylinn Smith on Jan. 20. Following Smith’s comments, the joint committee will adopt its recommendations.

Cuffe encouraged members of the public to provide written — as opposed to oral — testimony to the extent possible, given the hours of hearings that the DAC has already held as it worked to draft new legislative maps over the last year. 

The Legislature must transmit its recommendations back to the commission on or before Feb. 6. 

“This is a priority of the Legislature. This time table needs to be followed,” Cuffe told the joint select committee’s five other members, two of whom are Democrats. 

The Legislature occupies a curious position in the redistricting process. Per the state Constitution, its role is limited to providing feedback and recommendations to the Districting and Apportionment Commission. In the 2000 redistricting cycle, the Legislature adopted statutory redistricting requirements, leading to litigation that resulted in a district court holding that the Constitution “does not authorize the Legislature to interfere with the redistricting process beyond the express authority given to it in Article V, Section 14” — as such, the statute is generally ignored. 

There’s also no set requirement for how the Legislature provides feedback, meaning that the recommendation process varies from decade to decade. 

The legislative map that the Districting and Apportionment Commission adopted this cycle would in an average election yield 35 safe House seats for Democrats and nine competitive seats, with the remainder strongly favoring Republicans. The Senate pairings include 18 Democratic seats, a toss-up seat that includes Whitefish and Columbia Falls, two Republican-leaning competitive seats and 29 safe GOP districts. Both the House and Senate maps passed on 3-2 votes, with Smith breaking ties in favor of the commission’s Democrats. 

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Republicans have attacked the commission’s end-product for ostensibly favoring Democrats, even as the minority party would remain solidly in the minority under the plan. 

Cuffe said several lawmakers are also concerned that the new lines would leave them without a district to run in. 

“We know there were a bunch more seats impacted and a lot of people have questions about ‘How did this line happen to go?’” Cuffe told reporters after Thursday’s meeting. “I have certainly many questions.” 

The process following the select committee’s adoption of its recommendations is still a little hazy. The likely series of events is this, Cuffe said: The resulting resolution will go to the House and Senate State Administration Committees, where it may require additional rounds of public comment. Both committees will need to pass the resolution, which then will receive a vote in each chamber of the Legislature. If it passes, the resolution will then go back to the commission, which can either ignore the Legislature’s recommendations or choose to make tweaks to the map.

Smith told Lee Newspapers last week that she hopes the recommendations will be bipartisan and that the commission will be more likely to make minor changes than consider an entirely new map. 

The tight timeline and the overall complexity of redistricting has left lawmakers and staff scrambling to schedule meetings to provide for feedback and public comment in a way that complies with law and legislative rules, Cuffe said. 

“I’ll tell you, this week has been a little bit like running around a gymnasium that’s full of ball bearings,” he said. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.