Undertake an Initiative Campaign
Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
(Secretary of State)
Montana's Populist governor Robert B. Smith, elected
in 1896, and his successor, Joseph K. Toole, elected in 1900, both called for adoption
of the initiative and referendum, but neither made much headway until December 1903, when the reformer F.
Augustus Heinze organized an "Anti-Trust Democratic Party" and an "Anti-Trust
Republican Party." These groups, combining their efforts with those of the
vocal "seven or eight men" from the state's Direct Legislation League, were able
to push an I&R amendment through the legislature. The bill did not include the
right to pass state constitutional amendments by initiative. Voters approved the I&R amendment by a six to one margin
1906, with a majority voting in favor in every county. Montanans
added the constitutional initiative to their constitution at the 1972
state constitutional convention, 66 years later.
Montanans first used the initiative in 1912, when voters
approved four out of four initiatives on the ballot. One required primary
elections to nominate state and local candidates; the second established a
presidential preference primary; the third called for direct election of U.S.
senators; and the fourth limited candidates' campaign expenditures.
The reformers' goal for the 1912 election, which was to "Put the Amalgamated
[Copper Company] out of Montana politics," proved to be an elusive one as
the company continued to be influential in the World War I era. Even after the election of Joseph M. Dixon as governor in
1920, which was a victory for the reformers, Amalgamated continued to dominate
the legislature. Near the end of his term, Dixon and the reformers turned to the
Dixon selected as his key issue the under-taxing of
Amalgamated: in 1922 the production of Montana's metal mines was $20 million,
but the state got less than seven-hundredths of one percent of that in taxes. To
remedy the situation, Dixon drew up Initiative 28, which proposed no taxes on
mines with annual production of $100,000 or less, but taxed larger mines at up
to 1 percent of the value of their production. The initiative qualified for the
ballot in 1924, the same year Dixon was up for re-election.
During that campaign, observed K. Ross Toole in his
history of Montana, "The people heard little from Dixon himself because he had
no medium for expression. The press was controlled [by Amalgamated], and there
were no radios." Amalgamated attacked Dixon's policies and Dixon himself, and he
lost the election by 15,000 votes. But in their attacks on Dixon they overlooked
Initiative 28, and it passed.
In 1920, voters approved a 1.5 million property tax
for maintenance of the state university, and on the same ballot passed an
initiative issuing $5 million in bonds to fund school construction. In 1926,
they passed a three-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to fund road construction, and
they approved more highway funding in a 1938 initiative vote.
Numerous other important initiatives have passed in the last decade – term
limits and tax reform have been the most controversial with state legislators.
These two reforms have led state lawmakers to propose numerous new regulations
and restrictions on the initiative process.
After its Progressive-era heyday (1912-1928) during
which 17 measures reached the ballot, the initiative process fell into disuse.
Only six initiative came before the voters in the subsequent four decades.
Initiative use picked up again in the mid-1970s, as it did elsewhere in the
country, with frustrated voters approving property tax relief and the recall
process in 1976. Initiative use continued to grow, with 16 measures in the
1980s, 16 measures in the 1990s, and 14 measures since 2000. The issues have
been varied, ranging from opposition of basing MX missiles in the state, tax and
term limits, minimum wage, campaign finance, and same-sex marriage.
David Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution
(Temple University Press, 1989).