Public Service Commission building
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

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The Montana Senate last week passed a redraw of the state’s Public Service Commission districts that, if enacted, would replace a court-ordered map drawn last year. 

Senate Bill 109 would divide the commission’s five districts based on the reapportionment of Montana’s 100 state House seats that the state’s independent redistricting committee finalized earlier this year. Each PSC district would comprise 20 House districts and heavily favor Republican candidates for the commission, which regulates monopoly utilities in the state. Unlike legislative and U.S. House districts, which the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission draws every 10 years, the shape and population of PSC districts are the purview of the Legislature. 

But that arrangement proved to be problematic. By the 2021 session, lawmakers hadn’t updated the PSC map in 18 years. As a result of that — and Montana’s prodigious but unevenly distributed population growth — the commission’s southwestern district had eclipsed its Hi-Line district by more than 50,000 people by 2021. By the end of that year, a group of Montana residents including former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown challenged the map on 14th Amendment grounds, arguing the population disparities between districts violated the principle of one person, one vote. 

A panel of federal judges eventually concurred, ordering the adoption of a new map that brought the maximum population deviance between counties to a presumptively constitutional 5.5%. The court acknowledged it did so reluctantly, and made clear that the Legislature had the authority to draw a new map the next time it met. 

Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier’s SB 109 began its life this session with two aims: endorsing the court-approved plan and adding language to statute mandating that the Legislature review and adjust PSC districts after each decennial census for compliance with the U.S. Constitution. 

But that changed on the evening of Feb. 28, only a few days before the Legislature’s bill transmittal cutoff, when the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee approved an amendment from Regier that redrew the five districts despite opposition from committee Democrats. 

Regier’s amendment, instead of following county boundaries, allocates 20 state House districts to each PSC district. The resulting plan splits several Montana cities — most of which lean Democratic — between districts. And it extends the southwestern third district deep into central Montana, all the way to Winnett and beyond. Several districts have appendages that jut out in unconventional ways, which Regier said was necessary to obtain equal populations. The maximum population deviation in Regier’s plan would be 1.5%. 

On the court-approved map, western Montana’s district four and the southwestern district three would both lean Republican by a couple of points. All current commissioners are members of the GOP. Under the Regier plan, both districts would become significantly more Republican. 

Regier said in committee he was waiting until Montana’s secretary of state signed off on the state House districts to introduce the new PSC plan, which happened earlier in February. And he maintained he didn’t look at political data as he drew the maps.

“​​That would make the population as equal as the redistricting commission made them,” he said. “That means that the chance of the districts being over and underpopulated in the next 10 years would be slim.” 

But Democrats cried foul about the number of urban divisions. 

“I know you know that there are a lot of ways these districts could have been grouped,” Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, told Regier on the floor Thursday. “One of the concerns I have, as you know, is this splits 14 counties, and almost all major cities in the state. It seems like there were other goals besides population equity.”

For legislative districts, Democrats said, the Constitution mandates that they be compact and contiguous as well as equal in population. During the legislative redistricting process, Republicans repeatedly criticized the eventual map for odd-shaped districts and split communities of interest. Now, those qualms seem to have disappeared. 

“Many in this body asked the Districting and Apportionment Commission … to avoid splitting cities and towns, and to create the most compact map possible,” Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, said Thursday. 

But Regier maintained that those constitutional provisions have nothing to do with PSC districts. The only requirement is that they are as equipopulous as practicable. And even as Republicans a few weeks earlier had complained about cities being split between legislative districts, Regier said it’s beneficial for cities to be split between PSC districts. 

“We’re talking about PSC districts,” he said. “A lot bigger. We’re not talking about small House districts. It’s an advantage to a city to have two commissioners answer to them.”

One potential wrinkle: Montana GOP Chair Don Kaltschmidt has threatened to sue over the new legislative districts. If that suit goes forward and is successful, Regier will have based his maps on potentially illegal legislative districts that he himself previously opposed. 

Regier’s amended SB 109 passed on a 30-20 vote on the Senate floor Thursday, March 2. It still needs approval by the state House and the governor.

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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.