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"It's going to be very difficult," Bennett says. "The people who were elected to the majority were very clear about their beliefs. They're not supporters of equality under the law. They don't believe that our education system needs more funding. These are the same folks that tried to cut children's health care in 2009. It's pretty obvious that they have an extreme agenda. And it's going to be difficult to move forward some progressive ideas, but that doesn't mean we're not going to try."
House District 94's rookie legislator, Democrat Ellie Hill, knew before Election Day that she was on her way to Helena, having beat out her only challenger, Lou Ann Crowley, in Montana's primary election months earlier. That didn't dim her excitement as she made plans—and began drawing lines in the sand—with her liberal compadres while celebrating at the Central.
"We're going to have to fight like hell to save children's health insurance and make sure that they don't make cuts to our education funding," Hill says. "I am a passionate believer in mental health services, and I know that those are on the chopping block...Defense will have to be the best offense that we have."
It's clear that accomplishing anything on the progressive agenda this legislative session will be a daunting task. But Hill says her arrival in Helena this January alongside Bennett, the state's first openly gay legislator, in and of itself constitutes a significant achievement.
"We're fundamental believers that the Legislature our founding mothers and fathers envisioned looked like the people of the state of Montana," Hill says. "The people of the state of Montana aren't all old white men. So, we're thrilled to represent what we see as the true faces of the people."
That said, the Montana Legislature is distinctly homogenous this session. Republicans will fill 68 of 100 seats in the House. That reality means this session will require finding allies and identifying commonalities in order to preserve progressive priorities.
"Just like all of us Democrats don't look the same, neither do the Republicans," Hill says. "We do already know that we have a lot of friends and a lot of common ground. Ultimately, I hope that we have more common ground than not."
And, of course, as Democrats are keenly aware, there's always another election coming down the pike.
"The pendulum will swing again," Hill says.
Republicans eye cuts in education and social services
by Matthew Frank
Next year, Republicans will enjoy one of the largest majorities in the history of the Montana House of Representatives. And they will own a six-seat majority in the Senate. The numbers suggest they won't have many difficulties advancing their agenda.
"What this will mean is that there won't be gridlock in the House," said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor.
And what happens when Republican-controlled chambers are free of gridlock?
"My guess is there's going to be significant cuts in health and human services," predicted Sen. Dave Wanzenreid, D-Missoula.
In the wake of an Election Day that saw Republicans gain a total of 19 seats, veteran legislators Shockley and Wanzenreid led Monday's City Club Missoula forum that previewed the 2011 Montana Legislature.
"This will put us, the Republican Party, pretty well in position to the control the Legislature," Shockley said. "However, we don't have a veto. The governor does. He can veto a whole bill or he can veto a line in an appropriations bill. But the important part there is that he doesn't have a line-item insert—he can take money out, but he can't put money in. And this time there's going to be no money."
Shockley and Wanzenreid agree that money will be legislators' primary focus come January when they convene in Helena. The state faces a projected $400 million budget shortfall by mid-2013. For Shockley, that means the state needs to make significant spending cuts.
"I'm for doing away with whole programs," he said, "and, when we have money left, funding good programs to a greater extent."
Specifically, Shockley expects cuts within education and the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, but he declined to name specific items.
Wanzenreid warns of the consequences of making cuts, especially if it's a certain percentage across the board that leaves all department heads squeezed and puts savings on the backs of Montanans who receive crucial social services. He called it "the easy way out."