Resolution on New House and Senate Districts is Sailing Through the Legislature

SJ 8, sponsored by Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, passed a preliminary vote in the House on party lines late last week

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Montana Free Press
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

A resolution containing lawmakers’ feedback on newly drawn state House and Senate districts is sailing through the legislative process ahead of a deadline next month. 

SJ 8, sponsored by Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, passed a preliminary vote in the House on party lines late last week. It fared the same in the Senate earlier in the week. 

The resolution contains two distinct sections: The first reflects recommendations agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Redistricting, while the second features a list of Republican grievances with the new legislative maps. 

The Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission advanced the new House and Senate maps on 3-2 votes late last year, with nonpartisan chair Maylinn Smith breaking ties in favor of the commission’s two Democrats. The Legislature — despite occasional efforts to the contrary — has no constitutional authority to change the proposed district lines, but can provide recommendations to the DAC. It must pass and submit that feedback to the commission by Feb. 6. 

The most significant bipartisan recommendations would see lines redrawn to allow two incumbent lawmakers, Reps. Joe Read of Ronan and Paul Green of Hardin, both Republicans, to be able to run in approximations of their current districts when the new plan takes effect in the 2024 election cycle. Under the DAC-approved plan, residency requirements would prevent both representatives from running in the districts that most closely resemble their current ones.

The bipartisan recommendations also call to keep Broadwater and Musselshell counties whole, to keep Georgetown Lake with Granite and Powell counties, and to keep the proposed House District 84 wholly within Lewis and Clark County. 

Democratic redistricting commissioner Kendra Miller noted that accommodating the request for Read’s district, for example, would be easy enough. But she also said the Ronan lines the DAC propose follow the same lines as the map that’s been in effect since 2014 — Read just wants to move into a new district. Furthermore, she said, protecting incumbency is neither a discretionary nor mandatory criteria of the redistricting commission. 

“Read has been on the same side of that district line for 20 years, he was not carved out,” she said. 

The Republican recommendations in the resolution mirror frequent GOP criticisms of the proposed map — that even though the maps would yield considerable advantages for Republicans in an average election, the lines in urban areas like Missoula and Bozeman provide an unfair advantage to Democrats. 

That assertion is based on district boundaries that intermix predominantly Democratic urban areas with predominantly conservative exurban and rural areas, yielding competitive or blue-leaning districts. 

“We’ve all seen the map. And we know it,” House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said on the floor Friday. “There are a few districts with a lot of fingers, so many fingers you might need a glove.” 

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press, which can be found online at montanafreepress.org.