Republicans Tripped Up by Their Anti-Citizens Initiative Law

You really can’t make this stuff up. First the Republicans win every statewide election in Montana while their party, led by the former president, assails election integrity. But gosh, since Montana’s citizens also voted overwhelmingly for a citizens’ initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, the Republican-dominated Legislature decided to hobble the citizens’ initiative process guaranteed in Montana’s constitution — and it’s backfiring spectacularly.

To make a long story much shorter, it’s no news to anyone that Montana and national property values have skyrocketed in the last few years. The median price for a home in the U.S. right now is $375,000. In Montana the median price is $359,678. The incredible increase in the cost of owning a home is great for the speculators, investors, and flippers who just want to make a killing and pocket the profits. But it’s not so great for those who are facing property taxes based on the sky-high prices — especially those who have been living in their homes for a long time, are elderly, on fixed incomes, and have no intention of selling them.

Comes now a replay of a successful citizen’s initiative from the 1980s that capped property tax increases — but was almost immediately overturned by the Legislature. This time around, a group called Cap Montana Property Taxes wants to gather signatures for CI-121, a constitutional initiative that would amend Montana’s constitution to revert tax valuations back to 2019 levels, cap rates on residences at 1% and limit increases in assessed valuations to either 2% or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Being a constitutional amendment, it couldn’t be overturned through legislative action.

But thanks to a law passed in the 2021 Republican-dominated legislature, they can’t do that until they jump through the same hoops the Legislature put in place to cripple the citizens’ initiative process. Namely, that law, HB 651, requires an interim legislative committee to review the language of any citizens’ initiative, vote on it, determine its potential impacts on business and print it with the initiative language on the ballot. It also expands the role the Attorney General plays in the initiative process — but that would be grist for another column.

There is no provision in the Constitution for legislative interference in the citizen initiative process and one can only assume Montana’s paranoid Republican legislators only did it so in the future it would be more difficult for citizens to do something like legalize recreational marijuana or ban cyanide use in gold mining.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen then determined that the language of the new law doesn’t apply to constitutional initiatives — so the property tax measure didn’t need to go before the interim committee. He was quickly sued by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana Farmers Union and a district judge ruled they couldn’t gather signatures without going through the process mandated by the new law. A Republican attorney then asked the Supreme Court to overrule the district court — which the Court refused to do and now CI-121 is on hold until it goes through the process to determine the potential impacts of the property tax freeze — which are likely to be significant.

It’s poetic justice that the Republicans’ anti-citizen initiative law is backfiring on them. And once again, the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes as it so often does when legislators pass ill-conceived, poorly-researched measures. Ironically, the Legislature itself could have addressed the property tax issue. But instead, Republicans were apparently way too busy trying to gut the citizen initiative process to deal with the real issues facing Montanans.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.