News Column

AG's office defends legal sufficiency of Charter's initiative

May 20, 2014

By Charles S. Johnson, The Montana Standard, Butte

May 20--HELENA -- The MEA-MFT's recent challenge of the legal sufficiency of Charter Communication's ballot initiative lacks merit and should be rejected by the Montana Supreme Court, Attorney General Tim Fox's office said Monday.

"This is an example of the kind of endless and subjective challenges the court has routinely discouraged," Fox and Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion wrote.

They went on to say, "Since petitioner (MEA-MFT) has failed to show untruth, partiality, argumentation or prejudice in the ballot statement, the court should reject their arguments, regarding the statement of purpose and implication."

Fox's office was responding to a petition filed May 12 by the MEA-MFT union asking the Supreme Court to remove proposed Initiative 172 from the ballot or to order that the ballot statements be modified extensively.

Charter received clearance May 6 to begin circulating the I-172 for signatures. Backers must obtain the signatures of nearly 25,000 registered voters by June 20 to qualify for the November ballot.

The cable, telecommunications and Internet company is seeking to reverse a December decision by the Montana Supreme Court upholding how state Revenue Department reclassified the property of Bresnan Communications. Charter now owns Bresnan.

Charter's initiative seeks to undo those decisions by reclassifying its property and blocking a tax hike exceeding 300 percent.

The Revenue Department had audited Bresnan's property and concluded that all of Charter's property should be taxed at a 6 percent rate. Previously, its cable TV property was taxed at 3 percent and telecommunications services taxed at 6 percent. A former state district judge upheld Bresnan's challenge, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Revenue Department.

As a result of the reclassification, Charter's property taxes rose by 329 percent, from $1.7 million in 2009 to $7.3 million in 2010.

The Attorney General's office disagreed with the MEA-MFT that the initiative unconstitutionally appropriates state funds.

"Such a broad interpretation of 'appropriations of money' is not supported by Montana law and it would possibly exclude Montanans from voting on a number of issues through initiatives," its response said.

Fox and Bennion said the fact that a ballot measure has a fiscal impact does not automatically mean it unconstitutionally appropriates money.

The Attorney General's office also disputed MEA-MFT's argument that I-172 was an unconstitutional "special law" intended to benefit one company.

It cited the fiscal note from the governor's budget office that said the proposed law wouldn't exclusively apply to one company.

In coming up with a ballot statement, the Attorney General's office said it sought out parties on both sides of the issue, including MEA-MFT, for their advice and substantially revised Charter's original language.


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Source: Montana Standard (Butte)

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