HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to declare a proposed initiative by Charter Communications legally defective and prevent it from being circulated for signatures or require the ballot statements to be replaced.
In a 5-0 order, the Supreme Court denied a request by the MEA-MFT, a union of educators and government employees. The court held that the ballot statements by Attorney General Tim Fox’s staff on Initiative 172 meets the standard the court has established in other cases. Charter is proposing the initiative in an effort to reverse a December Montana Supreme Court decision, reclassify its property for tax purposes and block a tax hike exceeding 300 percent.
As a result of the court ruling, backers of I-172 can continue gathering signatures. They need the signatures of nearly 25,000 registered Montana voters by June 20 to qualify it on the November ballot.
In mid-May, MEA-MFT challenged the initiative’s “legal sufficiency.” MEA-MFT contended that the ballot statement prepared by Fox’s staff was “systematically untrue and argumentative and cannot be easily fixed.”
MEA-MFT had contended that I-172 was legally deficient because it was an appropriation and special legislation in violation of the Montana Constitution.
Citing a 2014 precedent, the Supreme Court said, “We have made clear in several recent opinions that the attorney general’s legal sufficiency review does not authorize him to withhold a proposed ballot measure from the ballot for an alleged substantive constitutional infirmity.”
“We conclude these principles clearly apply here,” the court added. “Therefore, we decline to disturb the attorney general’s legal sufficiency determination on the grounds that the initiative is unconstitutional.”
The court said it was expressing no opinion whether such claims would be appropriate for a later pre-election challenge if I-172 qualifies for the ballot.
MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said he was “disappointed with, but not surprised at the court’s decision,” but believes I-172 is “constitutionally impaired.”
If I-172 makes the ballot, Feaver said MEA-MFT will return to court for a judicial review before the election and, if necessary, will do likewise if it passes in November.
He called I-172 “a frontal assault on the Montana tax code” by shifting millions of dollars in tax liability from one corporation onto the backs of Montana homeowners and small businesses.
Chuck Denowh, spokesman for the Big Sky Broadband Coalition for Lower Taxation, which supports I-172, called the measure “an important issue that will be decided by the voters.”
“We have a growing coalition of businesses and everyday Montanans who are very concerned about the potential impact that a 300 percent retroactive tax on Montana’s largest broadband provider would have on Montana’s economy, on investment in the state and on Montana’s emerging technology sector,” Denowh said.
In its petition, MEA-MFT also argued that the Attorney General’s office’s ballot statement wasn’t a true and impartial explanation because it says I-172 will “change the property tax rates” when in fact the true effect is to reduce the taxes to be paid by a telecommunications company.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
“Our examination of the ballot statement as a whole leads us to conclude that while it may not be perfect, or stated in the precise words this court might have chosen, this does not render the ballot statement deficient,” the Supreme Court said.