Snowbound in a tiny cabin with wood heat and none of the usual array of electronic contacts with the outside world, it’s hard to imagine that by the time this hits print the new year will have inaugurated four months of frenzied political activity in the 2007 Legislative session. But out there in the real world, the world run by clocks and schedules, the seconds are ticking down, the political scrums are locking up, and the bets are being placed on Montana’s roughest sport—the biennial Legislature.
The Political Landscape
Much has been made of what political color Montana is supposed to be these days. The sophomoric two-tone scheme adopted for national television would have us be either red or blue, Republican or Democrat. But as Montanans know only too well, the broad generalizations of network talking heads seldom get it right in the West.
The land defines us, and Montana is vast and wildly diverse, as are its people. We struggle to maintain open space in the face of onrushing development in our western valleys. But in eastern Montana, a dust plume coming down an otherwise empty dirt road means it’s time to put on the coffee pot. Out there, open space is not what you’d call a huge concern.
Nor, for the most part, are party politics. You don’t ask someone what party they belong to when you’re helping them, or they’re helping you, out of a snowdrift.
When Montanans vote, they most often seem to vote for the issues or the person rather than the party. Hence, the same electorate that overwhelmingly supports George W. Bush for president after John Kerry’s ridiculous goose-hunting episode also elects a Democrat/Republican gubernatorial ticket, overwhelmingly approves medical marijuana use and constitutionally bans same-sex marriage. So much for simplistic political color-coding.
What this means in practice, this year, is that Montana’s political arena remains very tight, with neither party dominant.
Pundits would have you believe there is some giant pendulum out there that swings back and forth as fickle voters decide to favor one party or another. But history shows that both parties tend to fall prey to their own self-destructive tendencies after a certain length of time in control and are eventually ousted because a bewildered citizenry seeks some real leadership and representation. So it has gone in Montana.
Democrats could boast a solid 20-year record of control through most of the ’70s and ’80s, but when they passed a 7-percent across-the-board tax hike in the early ’90s, voters tossed them out.
For 16 years Republicans controlled Montana’s governor’s office and for a decade they held solid majorities in both houses of the Legislature. In short, they ran the state. But then Republicans serviced corporate interests to the huge detriment of the populace at large. This mistake, historic in proportion, was called utility deregulation.
And so the voters tossed them out, too. Well, more or less. Perhaps you can chalk it up to that old adage, “the once-burnt child fears the fire,” but Montana voters, now stinging with burns, are being especially cautious with their trust these days. We have a Democrat governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, a Democratic Senate controlled by one vote and a Republican House held by the same slim margin.
Montana voters were clearly seeking balance at the ballot box in November. What they got is a bucking horse of conflicting agendas. What’s left is to hang on tight and hope to make it to the finish line.
The guy with the most to gain or lose this legislative session is probably Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Traditionally, the midterm session is the one in which the governor gets to roll out his or her agenda. Unlike a newly elected governor’s first session, with its inherited budgets and leftover planning, 2007 is an opportunity for Schweitzer to enact his own priorities, implement his own initiatives, and demonstrate the vision of his own leadership.
There’s little question that Gov. Schweitzer understood the implications of this session and, in an attempt to ensure a Democratically controlled Legislature that would approve his agenda, campaigned furiously across the state.
Truth be told, given the governor’s wide appeal, national profile and gregarious nature—combined with a nationwide rejection of Republican candidates—one would have thought he’d have done better when all the votes were counted. But it was not to be. Control teeter-tottered in both Senate and House, and thanks only to a party switch by former Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg did Schweitzer come out with at least one politically sympathetic chamber.
All that campaigning, however, has also sparked what can only be called fierce resistance by those Republican legislators who were successful. The House is openly hostile toward Schweitzer and able to wield enormous opposition with support from their Senate compatriots.
The state budget, for better or worse, starts in the House and stays there for most of the session. All appropriations bills requiring state funding also start in the House. Given the stated Republican antipathy to the increased spending contained in Schweitzer’s agenda, many will never make it to the Senate.
Gov. Schweitzer and his administration, however, have had two years to prepare for this session, and they come well-armed. Schweitzer has stumped across the state for what he calls his “Square Deal.” Enjoying a historic billion-dollar budget windfall, Schweitzer has promised, among other things, to give residential homeowners a $400 one-time property tax rebate, put $100 million into the state retirement system, nearly that much into the prison system, about the same in increased education funding, and toss $15 million toward acquiring new state parks and fishing access sites. For those who want more detail, the governor’s full budget is available online at www.mt.gov/budget/.
Spending, however, is not the only element of the governor’s midterm agenda. Many measures aim to “streamline permitting” to facilitate Schweitzer’s coal and export energy development efforts. One might think 16 years of Republican governors had streamlined Montana’s regulatory structure about as much as it can stand—and they’d be right. But Schweitzer’s team, although promising “clean and green” energy development, is about to show Republicans what chopping environmental regulations and handing out corporate tax breaks is all about.
Sad to say, this is the segment of Schweitzer’s agenda that is most likely to be received with open arms in the House, and certainly on the Republican side of the aisle in the Senate. There is, however, opposition from a growing array of forces that questions the need for Schweitzer’s massive energy development. For one thing, Montana already produces twice as much energy as we consume, so the new energy Schweitzer is talking about producing will be for out-of-state markets. Las Vegas is one Schweitzer has mentioned repeatedly in his support for a huge direct current transmission line with one purpose—to suck power from Montana to Las Vegas casinos.
Likewise, Schweitzer’s plans for coal-to-liquids plants are raising questions from economists as much as from environmentalists. The governor, who admits his fervor for the issue arose directly from Department of Defense interest, perceives his plan as all about meeting the nation’s liquid fuel demand. But for Montanans living in arid coal regions, questions about water availability and the local impacts from pollution, pipelines, transmission lines and rail transport are raising tensions. And then there’s the enormous cost—in the billions of dollars.
Given the split Senate and hostility from the House, it’s fair to say the Schweitzer team—which has never been particularly hospitable toward the Legislature—is in for a bumpy ride.
If Schweitzer has an advocate in the legislative branch, it is the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim one-vote majority and former Secretary of State Mike Cooney sits as president. Cooney, although experienced and able, is likely to face his own challenges this session, since Republicans have already promised to investigate how he managed to obtain a high-paying but unadvertised state job earlier this year.
Backing up Cooney’s leadership of the Senate—and making history while she’s at it—is Missoula’s Carol Williams, who will be the first woman to hold the Senate Majority Leader’s job. Williams counts several terms in the state House of Representatives toward her political experience, as well as the years she spent in Washington as the wife of Montana’s longest-serving U.S. Representative, Pat Williams. While Williams can be counted on to carry the progressive agenda through the Senate, her personal commitment to the session is the effort to establish and fund full-day kindergarten statewide.
Facing the Demo leadership team is the determined and not-particularly-friendly opposition of Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, who has already accused Cooney of casting “a stain across the Senate” for taking the unadvertised job with the state Department of Labor and Industry. In a letter to the chair of the Senate’s Committee on Committees, Stapleton requested that Cooney not be appointed to the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee because of his state job—a request that was ignored. Look for Stapleton, a staunch conservative, to provide the initial, but hardly the only, opposition to Schweitzer’s agenda.
The Montana House of Representatives is at the top of everyone’s list of places where politics are likely to get truly nasty this session. Incoming Speaker of the House Scott Sales is an arch-conservative from Bozeman with little use for either legislative protocol or Democratic priorities.
One of Sales’ first actions as Speaker was to appoint Rick Jore, the Legislature’s lone Constitution Party member, as Chair of the House Education Committee. The move was harshly criticized by the education community, since Jore has repeatedly stated his opposition to what he calls “government education.”
Sales and his Majority Leader, Mike Lange of Billings, set a harsh tone early on when, in one of their initial announcements, they declared the coming session would be “a war.” Sales further angered Democrats by intentionally not appointing many of their most qualified and experienced legislators to major committees. And finally, just to make sure nothing goes forward unless his party wants it to, Sales loaded key committees with extra Republican members, prompting complaints from Democrats who say the Republicans’ narrow one-vote margin in the House isn’t reflected in the over-stacked committee membership.
Facing the strongly conservative Republican leadership team for the Democrats is Minority Leader John Parker of Great Falls, his Deputy Minority Leader Bob Bergren of Havre, and Floor Leader Art Noonan from Butte. To say these guys have their work cut out for them in trying to usher Democrat bills through the House is putting it mildly. On the other hand, since Speaker Sales didn’t see fit to appoint any of them to major committees, they’ll at least have plenty of time to plan and organize their stand.
If past sessions are any indication, there are likely to be about 600 registered lobbyists working Helena’s hallways this time around—four times the number of legislators. Many of those will be out to protect and further corporate interests. Many others will represent state, county and municipal governments and various professional associations. The smallest segment will be those who, counter to Gov. Schweitzer’s broad-brush denigration of lobbyists, will try to protect the interests of the public at large on such issues as public health, the environment, recreational access, and Montana’s outstanding wildlife and fisheries resources. Given the Schweitzer administration’s harsh tone toward lobbyists so far, those in the hall may find themselves fighting an uphill battle in the coming months.
More than 2,000 bills have already been requested for introduction into the 2007 Legislature. Many, however, will never see the light of day, since they were requested when the political balance of power remained unknown pending election recounts. When the majorities swung one way or the other, the chances of passage for minority bills became considerably less likely. Of the bills that do get introduced, traditionally about half make it through the process to become law.
The sheer number of bills, to say nothing of their complexity, can be overwhelming for citizens. In the old days, detailed up-to-date information on legislation during the fast-moving sessions could be obtained only by physically going to the Capitol. Now, however, significant advancements have been made by the Legislative Services Division in the provision of online information.
Anyone with Internet access can go to http://leg.mt.gov/css/sessions/60th/default.asp for the complete array of information on the Legislature. There you’ll find names, pictures, and contact info for all legislators, which committees they sit on, and what bills they have requested. You can also search for bills by subject matter. Under the topic Alcohol and Drugs, for instance, you’ll find at least 50 bills covering everything from DUI to workforce drug-testing. Simply by clicking on the bill link, you can read the language of the bill, determine its status in the legislative process, find scheduled hearings, recorded votes and any associated fiscal information.
Although most citizens won’t use the available advanced functions, the online system also allows bill-watchers to search all legislation for specific words or phrases and to develop personalized online bill-tracking lists that will automatically update the status of the bills as they move through the process. This function, called “preference lists,” takes a little time to set up, but basically you simply punch in the bill numbers and the system does the rest.
Also available online are reports prepared by the various legislative research services. These include the Legislative Auditor’s Office, which routinely investigates state agencies to determine their compliance with both the laws as written and standard accounting practices, and the Legislative Fiscal Analysts, who prepare reports for legislators on everything from program costs to projected state revenues and expenditures. All of these services can be easily accessed to find a treasure trove of useful online information.
The single biggest issue of any legislative session is setting the budget for the next two years. This time around, the projected $1 billion revenue surplus and the proposed spending increases in Gov. Schweitzer’s budget are in the bull’s-eye of controversy.
Under the governor’s budget, state general fund spending would grow by an unprecedented 22 percent over the next two years. While Gov. Schweitzer says much of this is one-time spending and that the overall budget plan is “sustainable,” Republicans don’t agree, calling the budget “bloated.”
“I believe government is growing at an unsustainable rate,” Speaker of the House Scott Sales has said. “One thing I hope will come out of this session is to pare down this budget and take a closer look at the role of government spending.”
Sales’ concerns are echoed by Rep. John Sinrud, the conservative Bozeman Republican who will chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Sinrud says state spending shouldn’t increase more than Montanans’ wages—which increased only about 4 percent last year.
Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican who has served as budget director for both Democrat and Republican governors, has said he’s “a little nervous about how sustainable [Schweitzer’s budget] is,” adding “it is pretty extraordinary on the increase overall, and the number of new employees.” His concerns were bolstered last week when a legislative analysis reported the budget would actually increase state spending by 26 percent and add 400 new full-time employees, stating: “There is a significant expansion of state programs and services that may not be sustainable in the long term.”
For his part, Senate President Mike Cooney says the governor’s budget may look like a lot of new state spending, but that Schweitzer and the Democrats have to “fill some potholes” created by Republican neglect. Cooney also says such spending will benefit the state by bolstering infrastructure such as schools, health care and roads to help attract new businesses. “What we can say to the people of Montana is, we can afford this. We know we have the money to do this right now, so we’re not gambling with the future.”
Cooney’s Republican Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, disagrees. “There’s no crystal ball here—all bets are off,” Stapleton has warned reporters. “I think we might have a real division philosophically.”
Faced with a hostile, Republican-controlled House, the strategy for Democrats and Gov. Schweitzer seems obvious: introduce the legislation that’s most important to the administration and its Democratic allies in the Senate, which they control. Build momentum for the measures and public opposition to Republican efforts to quash them.
While such an approach promises lively debates in the Senate, there is no commensurate assurance that momentum will have any effect on the bills’ chances in the House. As one Capitol wag noted: “It doesn’t matter how much momentum a tomato has when it hits a brick wall—it still splatters.” From all indications, the House will indeed serve as a brick wall to anything sent their way by Senate Democrats or the governor that they don’t approve.
For their part, the Republicans likewise have a fairly straightforward strategy. They’ll bottle up the budget bill for most of the session in the House, where joint House and Senate subcommittees will hammer out spending priorities prior to sending the bill to the full Appropriations Committee, which, provided it approves it, will send it to the floor for debate and further amendment. By the time the Senate gets the measure back, it may bear little resemblance to Schweitzer’s initial budget proposal. Democrats’ job, via the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, will be to try to hammer it back into shape prior to sending it to the Senate floor for approval.
Predictably, the House will reject the Senate amendments, the bill will go to a House-Senate conference committee, and the wrangling will resume as both parties—and the governor’s office—position themselves for session’s end.
In this regard, however, the Democrats have the most to lose. For one thing, despite picking a Republican for his Lieutenant Governor, Schweitzer is a Democrat, and thus the success or failure of his midterm session will reflect heavily on the public perception of the party’s leadership. If Schweitzer’s major initiatives are stymied, eroded or killed outright, the public will inevitably wonder why he couldn’t accomplish his goals.
On the other hand, if Republicans are too brutal and their actions are perceived as punishing not just Democrats and the governor but the citizenry at large, a nasty backlash could await in the 2008 elections. Rep. Jore, as chair of the House Education Committee, could certainly serve as a bellwether for how far he lets his personal ideology influence his actions in the formulation of public education policy—and the public’s reaction to the outcome.
The challenge for House Republicans, who have already stated that they believe their party lost power because it wasn’t conservative enough, will be to paint the Democrats as fiscally frivolous spenders while portraying themselves as the protectors of the public’s tax dollars.
But as President Bush and his Republican-controlled Congress found out in the last election, the public has pretty much had it with do-nothing ideologues who are long on blather and short on progress. If anything, the pubic mood has soured even further as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars take a turn for the worse, the economy stagnates, and the threat of natural disasters from global warming increases. The natives are restless, as they say in the old Tarzan movies, and the last thing they’re likely to tolerate is a Washington-style partisan deadlock in Montana’s public policy arena.
When the final gavel falls on the 2007 Legislature, it is unlikely that either party will come away with much to brag about. Any measure that makes it through the process is bound to get watered down by one side or another, ensuring no one gets everything they want and courting the considerable risk of producing bills that have been compromised to death and turned into laws that simply won’t work.
Session’s end, however, is four long, intense months away, and as Sen. Stapleton has already presaged, “There’s no crystal ball here…all bets are off.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Missoula Agenda
The hot-ticket items on local legislators’ wish lists
The Missoula Agenda
by John S. Adams
Only Billings, with 18 legislators, boasts more representatives in the Montana Legislature than Missoula, whence 14 lawmakers hail. Of the Garden City’s 10 House members and four senators, only Rep. Bill Nooney is a Republican. Here’s a look at some Missoula legislators’ agendas for the 2007-2008 session:
Leading Democrats in the Senate is Carol Williams of Missoula’s 46th Senate District. Williams made history last month when her party elected her Senate Majority Leader, the first woman ever to hold the post. The lifelong Democrat, former House member and wife of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams is entering her first term in the Senate, and she’s put education at the top of her list of priorities.
“I really hope that we are able to increase funding to K-12 education, and to do some more for higher education than we did in the last session,” says Williams.
Williams says she expects to fight one of her biggest battles over a bill she plans to carry that would create full-day kindergarten in Montana. A big part of her job will be reaching out to Republicans for support.
“It’s clear there’s going to be a lot more work to be done and consensus to be built,” Williams says. “These are issues that get discussed not so much in debate as they do in one-on-one conversations with legislators you have some common ground with. That’s going to be my primary role, to reach out to everybody and find which parts of these bills everyone can agree on.”
Longtime Missoula legislator Dave Wanzenried, who won his first senate seat in November after being term-limited out of the House, also has education as his top priority. Wanzenried sits on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, and plans to introduce a bill that would create a state education trust fund. According to Wanzenried’s plan, the state would set aside $100 million and use the interest to help pay for the state’s share of education funding, thereby helping to secure adequate school funding in the future. The trust would also be used to help avoid property-tax increases in certain districts. “In some cases when the state’s share increases, in order to get that share, some local districts have to raise property taxes,” Wanzenried says. “What I want to do is to utilize the interest from the trust fund to make sure no property taxes go up.”
Wanzenried also plans to introduce a bill that would set aside a portion of the state’s unemployment trust fund—which is designed to help cover unemployment benefits should unemployment rates surge—to fund workforce development programs.
“The one thing we shortchange is preparing our workforce that is working right now for changes in the workplace,” Wanzenried says.
Rep. Ron Erickson of House District 93 has energy development on his mind for the coming session. He plans to introduce a measure that would require the state to recognize carbon dioxide as a pollutant. According to Erickson, the bill would require the Department of Environmental Quality and the Board of Environmental Review to develop emission standards for the greenhouse gas, which is widely understood to be the primary contributor to global warming.
Erickson says he also intends to introduce a set of bills relating to sequestration of carbon dioxide produced by future coal-to-liquids (CTL) plants. Gov. Schweitzer is the state’s lead promoter of the technology, which can convert coal into liquid fuels such as diesel and aviation fuel. Schweitzer maintains that CTL plants in the state would sequester excess carbon dioxide emissions in underground wells where the gas would be prevented from contributing to global climate change. The state does not currently regulate the sequestration process.
“This bill would start that process,” says Erickson, who adds that he’s not necessarily in favor of a CTL plant.
Rep. Bill Nooney of House District 100 says there’s nothing exceptional about carrying the title of Missoula’s lone Republican representative in the Legislature.
“Most of my friends are Democrats, so I don’t really feel anything special about being the only Republican,” Nooney says.
The freshman lawmaker has two bills at the top of his agenda for the 2007 session, the first being a short-term emergency lodging tax credit. That bill would create tax credits for motels and hotels that provide emergency temporary lodging to victims of abuse and people displaced from their homes due to natural disaster.
The second bill on Nooney’s wish list is a measure that would revise hunting laws to allow disabled hunters to hunt from licensed off-highway vehicles in areas where hunting and motorized use are permitted, as long as the off-highway vehicle is properly marked.
Nooney says he doesn’t expect much of a battle on either bill.
“I don’t think we’ll have any resistance,” Nooney predicts. “I think both bills make sense.”
Then again, just try to find a legislator who doesn’t think his bill makes sense. Despite the heated rhetoric coming from the Republican House leadership (incoming Speaker of the House Scott Sales said the 2007 session will be “a war”), Nooney says he’s confident both parties can reach consensus on education, health care, taxes and energy issues.
“I don’t think anybody is going to sit there and throw bombs at each other,” Nooney says.
But some of Missoula’s more seasoned legislators aren’t so confident that bipartisan deal-making will prove the hallmark of the 2007 session.
“Every bill is going to be looked at microscopically, and when Republicans believe there’s an ideological factor involved, they are going to very likely say no,” says Erickson.
Still, Williams predicts the partisan chest-thumping will settle down once legislators show up in Helena to begin working on policy.
“I don’t think it’s going to play in the long term what you’re hearing now,” she says.