Get an insider’s look into what’s happening in and around the halls of power with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Sign up to get the free Capitolized newsletter delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

June 15, 2023

The Montana Republican Party will not mount a legal challenge to the redistricting plan adopted by the state’s Districting and Apportionment Commission earlier this year, state GOP chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt said this weekend. 

Kaltschmidt, speaking following his election to a third term as chair at the party’s officers’ convention on Saturday, said Republicans will focus on defeating U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2024, not on litigating the redistricting plan. 

“We looked at our legal options, and we felt that it would be a distraction seeing how this ’24 cycle is going to be a big thing with Sen. Tester’s re-election attempt,” he said. “And we want to stay focused on that.”

Tester, Montana’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, is a top target for national Republicans in their attempt to take control of the U.S. Senate. He was top-of-mind at this weekend’s convention, where the party made clear what it sees as its priority for the next year and a half: Beat Tester, win the Senate. 

The Districting and Apportionment Commission took its final vote on new state House and Senate districts in February, with nonpartisan Chair Maylinn Smith breaking a tie in favor of the five-person commission’s two Democrats and concluding a redistricting cycle that began back in 2019.

“I didn’t see any sense in drawing it out longer,” Smith said at the time. 

The new House and Senate districts, which will take effect in the 2024 election cycle and remain in place through 2032, are the product of reams of public comment — including from the Legislature — and months of pitched negotiations between the commission’s partisan members.  As the process became final, Kaltschmidt and other Republicans said they were considering litigation. 

The House plan divides Montana’s approximately one million people into 100 roughly population-equal districts, about 60 of which, in an average election year, favor Republicans to varying degrees, with the remainder favoring Democrats. The 50 Senate districts, which each comprise two adjacent House districts, would yield proportionally similar outcomes in that theoretical political environment. A handful of potentially competitive districts would exist in each chamber.

Republicans currently hold two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate, so the new maps could — in theory — cost them a handful of seats in upcoming elections, though they likely would allow the GOP to maintain a sizable majority. 

Democratic commissioners Kendra Miller and Denise Juneau set out to create a plan that yielded a legislative split in rough proportion with the average breakdown of voters statewide over the last several elections, while still following the basic criteria laid out in the Montana Constitution — namely, population equality, compactness and contiguity of districts. But their Republican counterparts, Dan Stusek and Jeff Essmann, contended that the Democrats drew maps with a political outcome in mind at the expense of maximizing compactness and other criteria. Republicans also criticized the map for featuring long districts in Montana cities that mix Democratic urban areas with more Republican-leaning suburban and rural areas. 

Those concerns fueled the threat of a possible lawsuit.

“A major constitutional flaw with this map is it involves the treatment of suburban and rural voters differently depending on which city they happen to live around,” Essmann said in February.

But Kaltschmidt said this weekend that the party is no longer considering litigation — and that he thinks Republicans will still perform well in the new districts. 

“We also feel that even though we do feel that we were cheated, that we do feel that it was wrong for the commission to rule the way it did on that, we do think that we’ll probably do better than what a lot of people might think,” he said. 

Miller told Capitolized Thursday that the map is “the product of consensus criteria, extensive public input and deep compromises amongst members of the commission.” She maintained throughout the redistricting process that Democrats were willing to compromise, but wouldn’t do so just to give the GOP more seats. 

“It is also unquestionably consistent with every aspect of current redistricting law,” she said. “It was always pretty absurd for those on the fringes who wanted to gerrymander the state to suggest differently. It’s unsurprising that Republican leadership came to the conclusion that it’s not in the best interests of our state to waste taxpayer money on a lawsuit that would ultimately fail.” 

Stusek said Thursday that he also isn’t surprised by the party’s decision not to challenge the map.

“It would always have been an uphill battle,” Stusek told Capitolized. “It’s unfortunate that the spirit of the Constitution wasn’t followed regarding either a good-faith effort between the parties to select a chair or draw districts that didn’t discriminate against communities and treat them differently based on political persuasion.”

The GOP has been critical of the maps produced by the last several redistricting commissions, in part because of those spindly districts in urban areas. The chair sided with Democrats to break stalemates and approve a final legislative plan both in the 2000 and 2010 redistricting cycles — though that hasn’t stopped Democrats from losing considerable ground in the Legislature in recent elections. 

Kaltschmidt said he believes Montana voters need to amend the state Constitution and change the redistricting process. Republicans in the Legislature this session brought forth a measure that would ask voters whether to amend the Constitution to forbid the redistricting commission from using political data when drawing maps, among other stipulations, but that effort failed. Constitutional amendment proposals referred by the Legislature require 100 votes across both chambers, a tall order even with a two-thirds supermajority. Other ideas floated by the GOP range from requiring legislative approval of a redistricting plan to using an algorithm to draw maps.

“We do feel like our counterparts have too much power in this process, and we’d like to see it be more in the middle,” Kaltschmidt said. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

💵 Money Money Money 💵

$14.4 billion. That’s how much spending is authorized by the final version of the state budget bill, House Bill 2, that Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law this week.

That sum includes $4.3 billion in spending from the state General Fund, which is funded in large part by income taxes. It also includes more than $7 billion in federal dollars routed through the state’s coffers.

Nearly half of the overall budget, $7.1 billion, is directed at health and human services programs, including hundreds of millions of dollars for increasing the rates paid to health care organizations that provide care through the state-administered Medicaid program. The budget bill also routes more than $600 million to the Montana University System and authorizes about $500 million for the operation of the state prison system.

The budget will guide state agency spending for the two-year budget cycle that starts July 1. It complements an array of other spending measures that, among other things, fund one-time infrastructure spending, adjust tax rates and expand childcare and housing affordability efforts.

While Gianforte issued line-item vetoes on portions of a major infrastructure bill last month, he signed the main budget bill in its entirety. In a release this week, the governor’s office touted the overall suite of spending measures passed this year “one of the most transformational budgets in state history.”

Eric Dietrich 

A Primary for Gianforte

Freshman lawmaker Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, announced this week that he intends to run for governor in 2024, setting up a primary contest with incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. 

“I am running for Governor because I firmly believe in the power of Montana values and our way of life,” Smith, originally from Stevensville, said in a statement. “Our state has a rich heritage of hard work, self-reliance, and respect for our natural wonders. I am determined to preserve and restore these values, ensuring a brighter future for every Montanan.”

Smith could not be reached for a phone interview Thursday. In a story about his candidacy in the Daily Inter Lake, he was highly critical of Gianforte’s handling of marijuana legalization, which Smith believes has led to increased crime and mental illness. He added that he believes Montana voters want a more conservative option to the wealthy businessman incumbent.

“Gianforte is called ‘giant fortune’ for a reason,” Smith told the Inter Lake. “I’m gonna win this thing just by shaking hands and being a normal Montanan.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

District Court Judge Files for SupCo Seat

Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson has filed to run for the Montana Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Dirk Sandefur, who said last week he will not run for re-election in 2024. 

Wilson, a former prosecutor, was elected to the district court in 2016. No other candidates have yet to file for the seat, according to the state’s campaign finance disclosure database. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Capitol Eyes

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, left, plays trombone in a New Orleans-style swing band at the 2023 Montana GOP officer’s convention in Missoula on Friday, June 9. Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit/MTFP

Court Report

The Montana Supreme Court this week affirmed a district court ruling and ordered the release of dashcam footage and other information related to Senate President Jason Ellsworth’s 2021 traffic stop to Lee newspapers, which first reported the court’s ruling Wednesday. 

A state trooper pulled Ellsworth over for speeding in a construction zone in May 2021, per court records. Ellsworth argued that he should be released because he was en route to Helena for legislative business, and — despite repeated urging by the trooper — left his car and approached the trooper’s vehicle, invoking the name of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, according to court records. Under the Montana Constitution, “a member of the legislature is privileged from arrest during attendance at sessions of the legislature and in going to and returning therefrom” except in case of a felony.

Ellsworth pleaded guilty to obstruction of a peace officer as part of a deal to dismiss misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and speeding. 

Shortly after his hearing, Lee newspapers requested Ellsworth’s investigative file. Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson asked a district court judge to approve the release of the records. Ellsworth, through his attorney, opposed the motion, arguing that because the file contained confidential criminal justice information it should not be released until the conclusion of his deferred sentence. 

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ultimately ruled that disclosure of the information is in the public’s interest, and that Ellsworth’s interest as a private citizen had been diminished in part because Ellsworth invoked his status as a senator during the stop. 

“The court finds that Ellsworth occupies a position of public trust, and that the crime to which he pled guilty directly bears upon his position,” Seeley wrote. “An expectation of privacy in the investigation of these charges is unreasonable under these circumstances, and his individual privacy rights do not exceed the merits of public disclosure.”

Ellsworth’s attorneys then appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Writing for a 5-0 majority, Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice upheld Seeley’s ruling June 13. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Explaining the why and the where of Montana’s new legislative districts: Redistricting is a lengthy, complicated and contentious process. For more on how the state arrived at its new House and Senate district maps — and what the new plan could mean for political outcomes over the next decade — see this story from Montana Free Press. 

State senator charged with reckless driving, obstructing a peace officerSee this MTFP report on Ellsworth’s 2021 arrest.

Lakeside’s Tanner Smith challenges Gianforte for governorThe Daily Inter Lake sat down with Tanner Smith to discuss his run for governor and his critiques of the Gianforte administration.