Governor open to special session to re-draw PSC districts

February 15, 2022 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he is open to calling a special session of the Legislature to approve new voting districts for electing members of the Public Service Commission after federal judges ruled the current districts are unconstitutional.

Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, who wants to run for a seat on the utility regulating commission, is circulating a letter asking lawmakers to support a special session to set the new districts as well as to create a special select committee to investigate election integrity.

Gianforte, in a letter to lawmakers, said he would limit any special session to handling PSC redistricting only and would make the call “if and when the Legislature has demonstrated ample support for a Public Service Commission (PSC) map.”

A lawsuit filed by former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown and others challenged Montana’s current PSC districts, saying their populations now vary so much that they violate the Constitution’s one person, one vote guarantee. The districts were last redrawn in 2003, and Montana’s population has grown unevenly within the district boundaries.

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Three federal judges agreed the districts are unfair and blocked Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen from certifying candidates for two PSC races that are on the ballot this year. Candidate filing ends March 14.

The plaintiffs have filed three proposed new maps with the court. Jacobsen has until Feb. 22 to submit at least one proposed map to the three judges overseeing the case. A bench trial is set for March 4.

Skees, who wants the special session to be held before the federal judges can act, supports a map in which Missoula and Yellowstone counties would be divided in two districts while Lewis and Clark County would have voters in three districts. The map would also move Skees into a district whose seat is not up for election until 2024.

Last month, Skees told the Montana State News Bureau that he would be willing to support a map that prevented him from running this year, “if it creates a stronger district and allows for better representation for the constituents that I represent in the Flathead,” he said.

Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt wrote to Republican lawmakers on Tuesday to say they also agree on holding a special session to draw a PSC map.

The Republican leaders, however, said they wanted “firm and agreed-upon” information on the cost of creating an election integrity committee and details about what the committee would investigate, as well as whether supporters have enough votes to create and fund the proposed committee.

Montana’s Legislature meets for a maximum of 90 days in odd-numbered years.