Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Judges redraw district maps for utility regulator board

| March 11, 2022 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A trio of federal judges adopted a new map Tuesday under which Montana will elect members of the Public Service Commission this year, unless the Montana Legislature acts to update the map used to elect the five-member board to regulate monopoly utilities.

The ruling came in a case that challenged the current map — which was last updated in 2003 — because the districts varied too greatly in population. The judges ruled in January that the population differences in the 2003 map violated the Constitutional guarantee of one person, one vote.

The population difference between the most populated and least populated districts exceeded 50,000 residentsin 2020, the lawsuit stated.

The map the judges adopted "does not interfere with the governor or the Montana legislature's ability to call a special session and implement a different map, nor does it prevent the Montana legislature from creating a different constitutional map during the 2023 legislative session," U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris wrote Tuesday.

The Legislature is responsible for drawing the PSC District maps, but in 2013 they killed a bill that would have redrawn the districts to more evenly distribute the population based on the 2010 Census. The bill also would have tasked the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee with evaluating the districts every 10 years when new Census results are available.

Two bills that sought to revise the PSC districts died in the Senate State Administration committee during the 2019 session, the judges noted.

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen asked the judges to allow the 2023 Legislature to redraw the districts, but the judges said "the limited record shows that the Montana Legislature has consistently failed to remedy malapportioned districts."

"The Legislature's position all along has been that the court should have waited for the 2023 session to correct the issue before engaging in court-ordered redistricting," Republican House Speaker Wylie Galt said in a statement. "While I disagree with that decision, I appreciate the court ordering a map that makes very few changes to prior legislative action and also for recognizing the Legislature's ultimate authority to adjust Montana's PSC districts."

Lawmakers tried to organize a special session to redraw the voting districts after the lawsuit was filed, but some members of the Legislature would not agree to limiting the session to just the map. They also wanted to investigate election integrity, so the governor did not call a special session. A bench trial on the case was held on March 4 in Missoula.

The new map moves four counties. Glacier, Pondera and Musselshell counties are moved into District 1 and Deer Lodge County is moved into District 4.

"The court has affirmed that all Montanans have an equal right to vote," said Constance Van Kley, an attorney for the plaintiffs — former Secretary of State Bob Brown and two Gallatin County voters. "This ruling is a victory for Montana voters and for democratic principles."

Two candidates have filed for PSC Districts 1 and 5, the seats that are up for election this year, but the court order finding the previous map to be unconstitutional also prevented Jacobsen from processing the filings.

Incumbent Randy Pinocci of Sun River filed in District 1 along with Republican challenger Arlo Christianson of Great Falls. Republicans Derek Skees of Kalispell and K. Webb Galbreath of Browning initially filed for District 5.

However, under the new map, Galbreath would not be able to run in District 5, but could run in District 1. When told about the change in the map Tuesday, Galbreath said he'd have to talk with his family about whether he would still run.

The last day for candidates to file for office is March 14.