For Rep. Jon Sesso, a Democrat from Butte, the 2011 Legislature wasn't the success it could have been. Promising discussions on the real issues facing Montanans took a back seat, he says. "Ideological measures dominated the landscape."
Meanwhile, high unemployment rates continued to make headlines in western Montana. Contractors were hard pressed for work. At the same time, the state's eastern counties began to realize how ill-prepared their infrastructures were for the Bakken oil boom.
"I don't think we were nearly as successful in 2011 as we could have been," says Sesso, the current House Minority Leader. "Our record in 2011 was not what we set out to do." Rep. Betsy Hands, a Democrat from Missoula, says, "There's going to be a huge amount of pressure" to catch up in the 2013 legislative session. And the key words on nearly every politician's lips are the same: job creation.
An atmosphere of slight urgency settled on the Missoula City Council chambers at noon Feb. 27. Legislators from nearly every nearby House or Senate district put off their lunch breaks to talk about boosting the state's economy. Representatives from various businesses and organizationsMEA-MFT, a statewide education union; Planned Parenthood; the WGM Group, a Missoula-based design and engineering firm; Missoula Economic Partnershipjoined in.
Missoula marked the latest stop in a weeks-long sojourn across Montana titled the Jobs Opportunity and Business Strength (or JOBS) Tour. The Montana Democratic Party announced the initiative earlier this year, with the goal of building a comprehensive list of legislative proposals. By the time they reached Missoula, the Democrats had visited 14 cities, spoken with representatives of 30 businesses and hosted scores of public forums. And they still hadn't made it to northwestern Montana, where unemployment rates hover in the mid to high teens.
Can lawmakers create jobs?
"Our job is to enable others to succeed," Sesso says. "And to provide the tools, the training and in some cases the funding to allow these businesses to create jobs and move forward."
If the Missoula meeting is any indication, much of the 2013 session for the Democrats will focus on investment. The WGM Group talked about it; for the first time in 20 years, President and C.E.O. Brent Campbell told lawmakers, the firm has no major projects for local contractors. The representative from MEA-MFT pleaded for smart investment as well; hundreds of Montana teachers have been laid off since the recession began, and thousands more have not seen a pay raise in years. Everyone appeared to be vying for a chunk of the state's $400 million in estimated annual revenue.
Much of the Democrats' planned investment could come in the form of infrastructure. Sesso says Montana's Bakken-affected counties are struggling to catch up with demands for better roads, bigger schools and more housing. Helping those areas with improvements through the Treasure State Endowment Program or other state funding avenues is one part of the picture; the other is recognizing similar needs in other parts of the state.
"Infrastructure is your backbone for economic development," Hands says. "So if we can use those investment pools as a way to expand how we use those funds, we might be able to help out both sides of Montana."
Such investment could be seen as a job creator. It could also be seen as a short-term political solution to a more complex problem.
Conservatives nationwide panned President Barack Obama's American Recovery Act, which funded road construction and other infrastructure projects across the country in 2009. The contracting jobs were many but short lived.
The potential in Montana for a partisan split on infrastructure-related proposals is a concern for Sesso. He recalls that the mantra of many freshman conservative lawmakers in 2011 seemed to be "smaller government." But that's not what he's hearing from businesses and citizens on the JOBS Tour, he says. Rather than calls for fewer regulations and less government spending, Sesso says he's hearing calls not to tinker "for tinkering's sake."
"They really want stability," Sesso says. "Many times we heard, 'The one thing we'd like you to concentrate on is not changing everything all the time...Every two years, you change one regulation or another. Stop it already. We're okay with the level of regulation. We want certainty.'"
Hands adds that newly developed regulations, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's push for lower phosphate levels in dishwashing detergent, have opened new doors for Montana-based labs and development companies. She puts Missoula's Rivertop Renewables and Bozeman's BioSciences Laboratoriesboth stops on the JOBS Tourhigh on that list.
The real challenge Democrats have highlighted in advance of next year's legislature is economic growth on tribal land. On the Blackfeet Reservation, Sesso says, "there's not a lot of growth. There they are in the shadow of one of the jewels of Montana, Glacier Park, and struggling to gain a foothold in the tourism economy." Start-ups, he says, "are not choosing that area for their development prospects." As the pressure builds to find solutions to Montana's pockets of economic instability, he sees a growing need to lean on Native American leadership in the legislature for answers about what the state can do on sovereign soil.
The Democrats aren't alone. Hands says her caucus is reaching across the aisle during the interim to informally discuss how to make 2013 a more successful session. Rep. Walter McNutt, a Republican from Sidney, even hosted the JOBS Tour's leg in the northeastern portion of the state.
"Hopefully, we'll have enough responsible legislators this time to see clear to concentrate on what we can do," Sesso says, "as opposed to some of the other issues they were preoccupied with in the '11 session."