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On the verge of a supermajority, Montana Republicans eye constitutional changes

 Montana House of Representatives.
Montana Public Radio
Montana House of Representatives

Montana Republican lawmakers were so pleased with the results of the 2021 legislative session, they broke into song at its conclusion. They held strong majorities in the Statehouse and, for the first time in 16 years, a Republican sat in the governor’s office.

In this midterm election, they could solidify their power even more.

Republicans are two seats away from holding supermajorities in both chambers of the state Legislature — and that could have big implications for the 2023 legislative session.

Democrats, like House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, are trying to prevent that from happening and argue that kind of power isn’t in the state’s best interest.

“Big majorities and single-party control isn’t good for compromise and it’s probably not very good for governing,” Abbott said.

As the GOP seeks more control over state politics, Democrats left 36 legislative seats uncontested in this year’s midterm election.

Republicans need a net of two seats to gain supermajority control of the statehouse. Here are a couple legislative races we’re watching that could influence the outcome:

SD 49 - Missoula Democrat Willis Curdy and Republican Brad Tchida are vying for a Senate seat that was long held by Democratic Sen. Diane Sands.

SD11 - Great Falls Republican Daniel Emrich is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobsen in this district that former President Donald Trump carried in 2020.

SD39 - This Senate district covers Philipsburg, Drummond and part of Anaconda. Democrat Jesse Mullen is hoping to retain his party’s seat, held by former state Sen. Mark Sweeney, who died earlier this year. Trump carried this district in 2020 and Republican Terry Vermeire is challenging Mullen.

If Republicans maintain their 67-seat majority in the state House of Representatives and pick up two seats in the state Senate they’ll hold two-thirds of each chamber. That means conservatives would have the ability to pass legislation without compromising with Democrats, and to overturn a veto from the governor.

They would also meet the threshold necessary to propose amendments to the state bill of rights. Several Republican lawmakers have already requested draft bills to put constitutional referendums to voters.

Retired journalist Chuck Johnson covered state government and politics for more than 40 years. He says Republicans could seek changes one-by-one or ask voters to call a constitutional convention to rewrite the whole document.

“So whether they want to do that or whether they want to do individual constitutional amendments — same process — they need 100 votes from the House and Senate total, and then it goes to the public in the next election,” Johnson explained.

Johnson says voters hold a check on constitutional proposals by getting the final say if they approve. State lawmakers can’t amend the document unilaterally.

In recent legislative sessions, Republicans have proposed amendments with the intent to limit abortions, change term limits for lawmakers and alter the process for how vacancies for some statewide offices are filled. Most of those died in the legislative process. One proposal that would add “electronic data and communications” to the list of things protected from unreasonable searches and seizures is on the ballot this year.

There’s no guarantee the more conservative and moderate factions of the GOP party members will be able to find consensus on bills and proposed constitutional amendments. Democrats have said the state Constitution has served Montana well and will push back against changes they disagree with.

Whatever numbers the GOP has in the Legislature, they’ll have a conservative partner in the executive branch.

In recent weeks, Republican Gov. Gianforte has been touring the state talking about his legislative priorities and championing work done by the state’s Republican majority last session.

During a speech at the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s annual membership meeting, he said taxes will be on the chopping block again after Republicans lowered business and personal income taxes last session. The first legislative priority he’s talked about is again lowering the state’s tax on business equipment.

“Probably the worst kept secret in Helena is we’re going to lower taxes again,” Gianforte said.

Gianforte is also touting past legislation that boosted trades education, and a rule change that increased the number of working apprentices in Montana. He says these are the types of policies that will help address the state’s affordable housing crisis.

“To govern effectively, you also have to make three- to five-yard plays," he said. "In the last year we executed a lot of these plays to build a stronger workforce and to increase housing supply. I think we’ve moved the chains a couple of times and we’ve definitely put some points on the board.

"But there’s still a lot of game left and we’re going to run some more plays."

While Republican priorities dominated last session, Gianforte says he’ll take good ideas from anywhere — Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Montana GOP chairman Don Kaltschmidt told MTPR in a statement the party is working to “Keep and expand our Republican majority in the Legislature to continue building on the governor's success and keep Montana on the right track.”

The type of political control Republicans could hold in 2023 hasn’t been seen in Montana in roughly a century, the last time being in 1929, according to journalist Chuck Johnson.

In recent history, and for the better part of the last two decades, Montana has operated under a split government, with Democrats holding the governor’s office and Republicans holding the statehouse.

“I think that sort of speaks to the fact that we’ve had, up until the last few years, you know, kind of a state that people call purple,” Johnson said.

The makeup of the 68th Montana Legislature will be known after Election Day, Nov. 8.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.