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Lawsuit to halt property-tax measure should be dismissed, sponsor argues

'Unserious arguments by unserious people'
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Posted at 4:58 PM, Feb 07, 2022

HELENA — A legal attempt to delay signature-gathering for a proposed 2022 constitutional initiative to limit residential property taxes in Montana is based on “unserious arguments” made by “unserious people” and should be dismissed, a supporter of the initiative said in court late last week.

Bozeman lawyer Matthew Monforton – one of the sponsors of Constitutional Initiative 121 – said a new law adding requirements for administrative approval of any ballot-measure petition does not apply to constitutional initiatives. And, even if it did, the law has no authority that signature-gathering should be delayed if those requirements aren’t met, he said.

“The court should reject plaintiffs’ attempt to use (the new requirements) to run out the clock,” Monforton wrote. If signature-gathering must await execution of the new review requirements by the state, “the court would be giving each of these state actors a pocket veto over proposed constitutional initiatives by allowing them to slow-walk their duties – or not perform them at all,” he added.

Matthew Monforton, Bozeman attorney and co-sponsor of CI-121.

Monforton filed his arguments last Friday, asking for dismissal of a lawsuit brought by several groups and citizens opposing CI-121. The constitutional amendment, if approved by voters this year, would set the assessed value of residential property at 2019 levels and limit any increases to inflation. Valuations also could be tied to market values when the property is sold to a new owner.

Supporters of the proposal say it would shield homeowners from big property-tax increases due to increased market values and assessments of their homes. It needs the signature of about 60,000 Montana registered voters to qualify for the November ballot.

The petition to qualify CI-121 was approved for signature-gathering on Jan. 7 by the secretary of state and “hundreds of Montanans” have downloaded petition forms already, to start gathering signatures, Monforton said.

Last month, the union representing teachers and many other public employees, two agricultural groups and several other parties filed suit to block the signature-gathering, saying state officials had failed to follow a new 2021 law, which created new requirements for ballot-measure reviews.

The law, passed by Republicans at the 2021 Legislature, said the attorney general must determine whether a proposed ballot measure will “cause significant material harm” to business interests and, if so, have that notice attached to the petition. It also says the measure must be reviewed by a legislative interim committee, which then must vote whether to oppose or support it – and, have that result placed on the petition.

Neither of those steps has occurred with CI-121.

Monforton said the law is “the product of arrogance and deep hostility toward voters who gave Republicans two-thirds of the Legislature in November 2020” and is unconstitutional. However, he is not asking District Judge Chris Abbott of Helena to strike down the law.

Instead, he said the law applies only to proposed initiatives that would change state law, rather than the state constitution – and, that it cannot be used to stop signatures from being gathered on the petition, simply because state officials failed to follow the law.

“What is clear is that the Montana constitution does not permit allegations of inaction by state officials to be used as a pretext to suppress the petitioning rights of Montana citizens under Articles II and XIV of the Montana constitution,” Monforton wrote.

“The liberal special interests attempting to weaponize (the new law) against Montana homeowners, like the self-proclaimed `conservatives’ who passed the law and are now flagrantly ignoring its requirement to vote on CI-121, are unserious people advancing unserious arguments,” he said.