Attorney General: Ballot Issue May Not Combine Study Commission Question, Mill Levy
HELENA – In a formal opinion released Friday, Attorney General Mike McGrath held that a local ballot question may not combine a request for a local government study commission with a mill levy to fund that commission.
The Montana Constitution provides local voters an opportunity to request a local government review of their county or town every 10 years. Under existing law, if local voters approve a local government review in a primary election, they then elect members of the commission in the general election. The commission reviews the existing form of local government and compares it with other forms available under Montana law.
Once elected by voters, the commission must prepare an annual budget. It may apply for private, state and federal money and may also accept donations from other sources. Previously, state statutes mandated that the local government under study appropriate money to fund the study. In 1999, the legislature changed the language of the statute to permit the appropriation but not mandate it.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Attorney Michael Grayson requested the opinion after the Montana Association of Counties circulated draft language to change the form of the ballot question put to voters. That language would have combined the request for the study commission with the question of a mill levy to fund it.
An existing Montana statute provides a form for the ballot question and notes that the issue put to voters must “substantially” conform to it. McGrath’s opinion held that the addition of the mill levy to the study commission question would be a substantial deviation from that format.
“The addition of a mill levy question to the study commission question is more than a literal or technical deviation,” McGrath wrote. Statutes relevant to study commissions “create a statutory scheme that separates the questions of establishment and funding of study commissions.
“(T)he local government cannot combine a mill levy question with the study commission question.”
An attorney general’s opinion carries the weight of law unless a Court overturns it or the legislature modifies the laws involved.