Abortion, Tax Initiatives Weighed

By Beacon Staff

The recent history of Montana’s ballot initiative process is rocky and ridden with legal battles. Every single 2006 initiative was the subject of a lawsuit. Three of the seven measures on the 2006 ballot were ruled invalid by the state Supreme Court. The court’s decision came down so close to Election Day that the newly invalid measures were already printed on the ballots.

Two years and one Legislature later, Montana is taking another crack at the process of citizen lawmaking, with two controversial initiatives emerging from the northwest part of the state. But as both initiatives have been cleared to begin collecting signatures, groups opposed to the measures are joining together to stop them. In the meantime, backers of these initiatives have until June 20 to collect the 44,615 signatures necessary to get on the ballot.

Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan is sponsoring Constitutional Initiative 100, which would amend the state constitution to define a person as “a human being at all stages of human development or life, including the state of fertilization.” That language change in the Constitution would force the Legislature to outlaw abortion and give the unborn due process rights. He anticipates the implications of his measure reaching beyond Montana.

“I’m not pushing to get it to the (U.S.) Supreme Court, but I suspect that it will be challenged and that avenue will take it to the Supreme Court,” Jore, of the Constitution Party said. “I realize this challenges the very foundation of Roe v. Wade.”

The second resolution, sponsored by John McMenamin of Kalispell, would limit property tax increases to no more than 1.5 percent a year, and set up an “acquisition-value” system of real estate appraisal where a home could only be reappraised when sold, instead of every seven years. Value would be based on the purchased price of a home, or the assessed value, whichever is greater. McMenamin was motivated to get Constitutional Initiative 99 on the ballot after the 2007 Legislature failed to pass comprehensive property tax reform. “I’m a little pessimistic that the next legislative session will be much better,” McMenamin said.

But new statutes may make things more difficult for Jore and McMenamin. When the Supreme Court invalidated three measures in 2006, it sided with critics, who said in the process of gathering signatures, many petition-signers were led to believe they were signing one petition – not three – by out-of-state campaign workers being paid by the signature. To remedy those problems, signature-gatherers must now be Montana residents, cannot be paid per signature, and court challenges go straight to the state Supreme Court.

At this point, Jore and McMenamin don’t have much in the way of money or an organization in place to begin gathering signatures. The men are pinning their hopes on the Internet, establishing Web sites where supporters can download petitions and affidavits, sign and mail them in.

“What I anticipate happening is a mushroom effect,” McMenamin said. “This is really grassroots.” So far, he has groups in Missoula and Bozeman backing his initiative. Jore’s strategy is similar, though he has received the verbal – if not financial or organizational – support of prominent anti-abortion groups.

“Right to Life of Montana supports any legislation or any amendment to the Constitution that would allow the general public to make an informed decision about fetal development or abortion,” said Gregg Trude, executive director of Right to Life Montana. Trude has encouraged individual members and chapters of his organization to petition for Jore if they choose. But at this early stage, that’s the extent of help offered.

Reticence to get fully behind these two initiatives may be due to the outspoken opposition mounting against them. The American Civil Liberties Union, Montana Human Rights Network, NARAL Pro-Choice Montana and Planned Parenthood of Montana recently issued an announcement that the groups had formed a coalition opposing Jore’s initiative.

“At the same time the extreme Constitution Party of Montana claims it wants to keep government out of citizens’ lives, it drafted this amendment where the state can be granted an intrusive role in every decision a pregnant woman makes,” Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network said in the statement.

In a Dec. 13 legal brief to the attorney general, ACLU Montana Legal Director Elizabeth L. Griffing wrote that CI-100 would violate the Enabling Act of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that state constitutions cannot transgress protections afforded under the U.S. Constitution. Griffing wrote that Roe v. Wade interpreted the U.S. Constitution’s privacy protections to cover a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy – conflicting with Jore’s measure.

Cathy Day, ACLU public policy director, said the group is going to be monitoring very closely the signature-gathering for the initiative, and at its Jan. 22 rally observing the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, will announce more coalition members.

Opposition to the property tax initiative is not quite as organized – yet. But several groups, including the Montana Taxpayers Association, the Montana Association of Counties, Montana AARP and the Montana Association of Realtors have expressed outright opposition to the measure, or will likely do so in coming weeks.

Critics of McMenamin’s measure said it would put first-time homebuyers, and senior citizens looking to downsize their home at a disadvantage when they must buy a place with higher tax rates than what they have been paying previously. The new home’s taxes would also be higher than surrounding homes, creating inequitable neighborhoods in which citizens receiving the same level of government services pay different amounts in taxes.

“Historically, we’ve opposed acquisition-value property taxation systems,” said Glenn Oppel, MAR government affairs director. “It’s fundamentally unfair.”

Critics also question how McMenamin’s initiative would complicate local mill levies when every house in town has a different tax rate. The initiatives are in the early stages of the process – but the closer Jore and McMenamin get to 44,615 signatures, the harder the arguments against them are likely to become. Asked about opposition, McMenamin – emphasizing he was no politician – was positive.

“There may be opposition, but in some respects that opposition is good,” he said. “At least it raises awareness.”