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  Comments (1) Total Monday Apr. 21, 2014
63 Safe Seats
Uncommon Ground
The sordid details of legislative infighting made statewide newspaper headlines. That’s not new to Montana politics. The Montana Legislature often exhibits its ruthless political mannerisms.

What was surprising in the leaked political emails was not the tone, nor the quest for raw political power, but rather a seemingly simple redistricting statement by Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings.

Essmann reportedly wrote in a leaked public email, “Jon Bennion was able to draw a map with 63 safe Republican seats. If we can implement the long term strategy we will be in a position to actually elect a majority of conservatives in both bodies, and have a court that will uphold it.”

Bennion is one of the Republicans serving on a five-member redistricting commission. He was recently the lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce and currently serves as deputy attorney general under Tim Fox.

The redistricting commission is comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans and one nonpartisan chairman.

Essmann acknowledges that Bennion made an attempt to draw lines to maximize advantage. But 63 safe seats in the Legislature are not the sole point.

Imagine if Democrats were also able to secure 63 safe seats. That translates to nearly 85 percent of Montana’s 150 districts decided by party insiders. Only primary elections determine if a moderate or fringe candidate is elected to serve.

The balance of just 15 percent, or 24 seats, would be considered swing districts, places where a candidate of either party can win elections. This shortage of swing districts in Montana would have big ramifications.

Campaigning would be targeted to these areas. And safe seats often breed the most fanatical firebrands of the Legislature.

Essmann has a provincial problem with redistricting. Billings’ population changed. Recently Essmann sponsored Senate Resolution 3 and acknowledged that Bennion brought the matter of 63 safe seats to his attention.

The Republican-controlled Legislature may pass SR 3 which urges political changes to the draft redistricting plan, but Democrats sponsored their own resolution. The House even formed an unbalanced legislative redistricting committee comprised of six Republicans and three Democrats.

Essmann’s resolution does little to help Flathead. But that’s not surprising as Montana politics is habitually provincial.

Power politics and a seemingly simple sentence in the Billings City Charter, “The Council shall not levy more than 74 mills on real and personal property for all purposes …” routinely affect Montana tax policy.

Watch out Flathead. Locals may yet lose that one gained legislative seat as Essmann bullies the redistricting commission.

The commission’s draft redistricting map diminishes Democrats’ chances of gaining a Senate seat in the Flathead. The House seats in Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls remain swing districts, where hard work and candidates themselves win.

The draft plan says that Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, will represent Whitefish for one Legislative term. Brown’s district becomes more Columbia Falls-centric in 2015. Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, will inherit representation for Whitefish in the next Legislature.

None of the political infighting is particularly welcome news for voters. It is even worse news for homeowners and small business owners who deserve real and measureable property tax relief.
The Legislature focused little on a homeowner property tax fix in 2011 under former Senate President Jim Petersen. Given Essmann’s history of provincial politics, Flathead homeowners may not be well served by his tax policies this session.

Essmann’s problem with redistricting has nothing to do with the 63 safe seats, nor the commission’s unanimous “Solomon-like decisions” that formed Montana’s 100 House districts. Essmann has a provincial problem with one Senate seat in Billings, in an area formally served by former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger and now regionally served by Essmann himself.

The Montana Legislature should quit focusing on safe political seats, stop trying to incite a conservative movement, and start focusing on moderate policies that helps locals.
On 02-07-13, RussCrowder commented....
63….Isn’t that the number of people that were registered to vote at Mile Jopek’s home address when he was in the Montana Legislature?
Kellyn Brown
Kellyn Brown12h
Landslide slowly destroying part of Wyoming resort town http://t.co/ggvVuuJKTG
Dillon Tabish
Dillon Tabish7h
Good night from Flathead Lake. #montanamoment http://t.co/9mJAN46Ovb
Molly Priddy
Molly Priddy18 Apr
@natashavc @TaraAriano @allyzay Oh no, I've been thinking it's a room for all your types of mustards. Recalibrating my ideas now.
Tristan Scott
Tristan Scott19 Apr
@tristanscott *Billie Joe
Flathead Beacon
FB Headlines23h
Kalispell’s Core Area Redevelopment Plan Inches Forward http://t.co/EO2le2frPY