Unions Seek to Bar Initiative from Montana Ballot

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Public employee unions asked a judge Thursday to stop the Montana Legislature’s tax rebate initiative from going on the November ballot.

The initiative was advanced last year by the Republican-led Legislature. It proposes that a portion of tax collections exceeding original budget estimates be returned with tax credits and rebates.

A lawyer for public employee unions and some other groups said in a Thursday court hearing that the measure unconstitutionally delegates appropriation power every time the proposed triggers are reached. John Morrison, who used to be state auditor, said the complex formula devised in the initiative allows for a lot of human error.

Morrison pointed out that a big piece of the puzzle is an estimate of revenues put together by one individual in the Legislative Fiscal Division — an estimate that has been a political football even before becoming part of a calculation for tax credits.

“These are hot political issues. They are not issues that can be put on autopilot,” Morrison said.

The attorney general’s office is asking District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to dismiss the case. The state argues voters need to first decide to make the measure law before its constitutionality can be tested in court.

Assistant Attorney General Andy Huff said courts have given a lot of leeway to ballot initiatives since the voters themselves get to make the decision.

“It is rare that these initiatives and referendums are struck down. It is only when there is procedural problem or gross constitutional problems with the bill,” Huff said.

If the judge does not agree to dismiss the case, Morrison said the unions will be asking for summary judgment in their favor.

Morrison asked the judge to make decision quickly enough prior to the November election so that the losing side has a chance to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

If the voters agree with the measure, the first year the tax credits could be enacted would be 2014.