Choking on Leftovers

By Beacon Staff

By now, most of us have mowed through our leftovers, but a fair number of central Montanans are still choking on theirs.

Whether or not you noticed, several years’ worth of squabble over re-districting Montana’s state legislative seats after the 2010 U.S. Census officially ended last February.

Unlike most states, which leave re-districting to shamelessly self-interested legislatures, reapportionment in Montana is done by five Montana citizens, not currently elected officials. The party leaders in each chamber of the Legislature pick four. The fifth, to be chairman, is selected by the other four, or Montana’s Supreme Court if there’s a deadlock (as happened for both the 2000 and 2010 processes).

Then, the five hold hearings, carve out 100 new House districts, “pair” each two districts with a new Senate seat, and assign mid-term “holdover” state senators to their new homes.

Is Montana way fairer? Ten years after he had served on the 2000 commission, Dean Jellison (a staunch, moderate Republican attorney) saw fit to remind the members of the 2010 commission that his fellow commissioner Joe Lamson had “manipulated districts to ensure that Democrats were either elected or re-elected.”

In the 2000 proceedings, Lamson and the other two Democratic commissioners had stretched U.S. Supreme Court precedent that put a practical limit of district populations at plus or minus 5 percent of a state’s district average, or “target,” population, packing Republicans into large districts while giving Democrats lots of room. Both frustrated Republican commissioners refused to sign the final 2000 result, that left at least 50 of 100 districts over 4 percent variation.

Somehow, it’s not really surprising that grateful Democratic legislators again chose Mr. Lamson to represent them for 2010’s redistricting cycle.

The 2010 reapportionment progressed somewhat differently. After the four legislative appointees deadlocked choosing a leader, the Montana Supreme Court appointed retired justice Jim Regnier to preside. The full commission then agreed from the start on a maximum variance of 3 percent plus or minus for district populations.

Only four of six Indian-majority House districts approached the 3 percent limit (under), in order to comply with federal requirements for districts with a majority of voting-age Indians.

Of the remaining 94 districts, 67 varied less than 1 percent from target size, affirming Jellison’s repeated (and repeatedly rejected) assertions that a “tolerance of 1 percent above or below the target population is certainly practicable in the work of this Commission.”

Upon this much-fairer basis of House apportionment, the commission then paired districts and appointed holdover senators – the nuttiest part came when Flathead’s Bruce Tutvedt was initially appointed to represent a Rocky Mountain Front senate seat his final two years.

That didn’t last. Chairman Regnier brokered a compromise bringing Tutvedt back home, but state Sen. Llew Jones (R-Conrad) would need to sit out two years instead of being able to run again as expected in 2014.

However, on its final day, with no prior public notice, the 2010 commission made more changes.

The last change, opposed by both Republican appointees, re-seated Jones. To allow that, what is now Senate District 15 in central Montana, covering Fergus (Lewistown) and Wheatland (Harlowton) counties, got Brad Hamlett.

Ordinarily, such would not be a big deal. While the term-limited Hamlett is a Democrat who doesn’t live in the new and heavily Republican SD-15, he’s regarded as a practical centrist.

But in 2000, SD-15 also got a holdover state senator who had “never appeared on a ballot in those counties:” Jon Tester.

Tester therefore could be Democratic senate president his final two years in state office, a good launch pad for his successful U.S. Senate run, a campaign to which retired justice Jim Regnier contributed $1,000.

So for the second consecutive time, after the legislative redistricting turkey was carved up, most SD-15 voters (70 percent) got the neck. In March, some grumpy voters filed a lawsuit (Willems v. Montana). After months of filings and counter-filings, the case finally got a hearing before state judge Mike Menahan, a former Democratic legislator, in Helena on Nov. 8.

Legalities aside, it will be interesting to see what Judge Menahan deems more important: making one state senator sit out an election, or making thousands of voters sit out two of four elections?

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