Breaking with precedent, Gov. Gianforte refuses to live in Helena - TAI News
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Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, right, Republican Sen. Steve Daines, center, and NorthWestern Energy President Brian Bird on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, in Colstrip, Mont. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

In the midst of a housing crisis in his state, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte recently added another luxury property to his collection. His fourth mansion is a getaway on Georgetown Lake that is worth nearly $4 million. The governor made this move while he is in a reelection battle and facing voters burdened by skyrocketing housing costs and property taxes. Montanans are blaming these problems, polling shows, on Gianforte, the Republican Legislature and rich people who are gobbling up real estate. 

The tangled matter of Gianforte’s residences is more substantive than political optics. The state’s 1972 Constitution is explicit in saying the governor must live in Helena. Two of Gianforte’s mansions are in Helena, the state capital, stately old houses in a neighborhood long labeled the city’s mansion district. He bought both after becoming governor in 2021, but neither is his legal residence. 

There is a fifth residence in the collection, a state-owned house at 2 N. Carson Street, a couple of blocks from the Capitol and set at the edge of a cluster of government office buildings. Sometimes Montanans will refer to this as the governor’s mansion. Gianforte doesn’t live there. That house was built in 1959 and had been occupied by every governor since, until Gianforte broke with the precedent. 

Public records indicate Gianforte is a resident of Bozeman. State law says voters must vote in the county in which they reside, and Gianforte votes in Gallatin County. Hunting and fishing licenses also indicate that he is a resident of Gallatin County. He claims a property tax rebate on his house in Bozeman, and state law says he can only do so on his residence. All of this appears to put him in violation of the constitutional requirement that he live in Helena, which is in Lewis and Clark County.

“A good question for him is, Where do you live?,” former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in an interview. “State law says you have to live there (Helena), and he has gone way out of his way to not live there.”

For Schweitzer and others interviewed for this story, this is more than a legalistic issue. The rationale behind the constitutional requirement is to make a governor present and accessible in the seat of government. Schweitzer, for instance, had a habit of walking to work at the Capitol with his border collie, Jag, and would often stop and talk with capital visitors and state employees along the way. Democrat Steve Bullock, the two-term governor who succeeded Schweitzer’s two terms and preceded Gianforte, made the governor’s residence a social hub. He adopted traditions like appearing with his family in costume to hand out treats at Halloween to neighborhood kids.

Now, though, the governor’s residence stands vacant. Officially, state officials say the reason is because it is not habitable, although it was indeed inhabited comfortably up until Bullock and his family vacated at the end of 2020. There are varying explanations of problems, including substandard wiring and some asbestos in or on walls, but the Legislature was aware of this as early as 2019 and set aside $2.4 million for renovation. The Legislature did so again in 2021, but to date the Gianforte administration has not performed any of the renovations.

Asked why, Janna Williams, the communications director of the state Department of Administration, said the matter is now up to the Legislature. Reminded that the Legislature had already decided the issue in 2021 and that nothing has been done since, she promised to further research the question and report back. She didn’t. 

Accountability for all of this is being sought by state Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat, who appeared before the Legislative Audit Committee on June 17 to formally request an investigation. The audit committee will vote in July on whether to go ahead with that inquiry, Senate President Jason Ellsworth said in an interview.

Yet all this appears to a number of Democrats as stalling by the administration simply because Gianforte doesn’t want to live in the official residence.

“Yeah. I would call it foot-dragging. That’s a good term for it,” Dunwell said in an interview. “It’s about the kind of Montana governor we want, who is accountable and is accessible to the public. … He gets a free house with his job, and he is thumbing his nose at it.”

The governor’s press office did not return phone calls or emails seeking clarification of his residency.

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