A Special Session Charade

Photograph Source: AFGE – CC BY 2.0

It’s pretty tough to figure out who’s leading what’s left of the Montana Democratic Party these days.

The confusion has only been increased by what appears to be conflicting positions on seeking a special legislative session to deal with Montanans’ “shock and awe” when their tax bills arrive based on the new and severely inflated appraisals.

Normally, the highest-ranking elected member of the party would be seen as its leader. That would be Montana’s senior Sen. Jon Tester who, as it turns out, is “the last man standing” Democrat to hold a statewide office after his party lost every single statewide race in the last election.

But it wasn’t Jon Tester who came up with the idea to ask Republican Gov. Gianforte to call a one-day special legislative session to reduce the state’s property tax rate. Nope, that came from former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and several of his administration’s “insiders” in a series of almost identical op-ed columns.

Having had considerably more experience with the vagaries of special legislative sessions than the former governor, this column pointed out that the Democrats, facing a Republican supermajority in both chambers, would have exactly no chance at controlling any of the actions once the session was convened.

While the Schweitzerites continued to press for their very bad idea, apparently those in the Tester camp are considerably more concerned about what might happen. They’re right to be concerned since the GOP has targeted Tester’s seat in 2024 and he’s repeatedly ranked nationally as one of the top four seats that may flip.

Oddly enough, the apparent confusion and conflicting strategies came to light in an op-ed column by Republican Sen. Brad Molnar. Unlike most of his GOP colleagues, Molnar actually tried three times to get enough signatures to poll fellow legislators on whether or not to convene a special session to deal with the property tax fiasco.

As he wrote: “To help marginalized people on July 19, I sent out a call to poll legislators for a special session to: (1) freeze property values at 2021 values, (2) provide domicile security, and (3) reduce Montana’s over-dependence on property taxes. Needed 10 signatures; got none. Aug. 4, I sent out a call to freeze property values at 2021 values while allowing decreased values to be captured. Aug. 15, I offered a special session to freeze property and mil values at July 31, 2023, levels while allowing those that have experienced decreased values to capture those.’ Soup to nuts they all failed.”

Interestingly, according to Molnar: “Despite Democrats having asked the governor to call a special session to address the (massive) coming tax increases none signed for a polling of the Legislature. I was told, ‘Tester’s people said not to sign because they fear an expansion of the call to include a renewed effort to implement a ‘top-two-only general election’ bill.”

So you have the Schweitzer arm of the Democrats still calling for a special session and, if Molnar’s information is correct, Tester’s people are against it. It’s not good for an already beaten down political party to be so leaderless they can’t decide whether or how to take on the most critical tax issue facing Montanans.

It also raises the question of whether the Schweitzerites’ call for a special session was sincere — or whether it was a political charade intended to simply provide a soapbox from which to assail Republicans.

And given that not one Democrat legislator would even support polling for a tax relief session, that it was a less-than-clever political charade seems much more likely.

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