AFP shows its hand

The Montana chapter of nonprofit Americans for Prosperity this week offered a small peek at how this year’s election cycle could shape policy discussions in the 2015 state legislature. Results from a 16-question survey the group sent to some 300 legislative candidates reveal that dozens of conservative hopefuls—and even Republican incumbents—are willing to line up in support of measures establishing public charter schools, reducing property taxes and transferring federal lands to state control. And for former Republican state legislator turned AFP state director Joe Balyeat, bills addressing these topics seem almost an inevitability next year.

“I would be surprised if there were many of these issues that didn’t have a bill requested on them,” says Balyeat, who served 12 years in the state House and Senate. “Virtually every session I was there, these issues were subject matter for bill draft requests.”

A total of 62 legislative candidates opted to respond to AFP’s survey in advance of the primaries, including Republican incumbents Sen. Mark Blasdel of Kalispell and Rep. Nick Schwaderer of Superior. Most of the respondents were supportive of controversial measures like reducing regulations on energy development; three Missoula-area candidates—Brad Tschida in House District 97, Mike Hopkins in Senate District 49 and former city councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard in HD 96—said they’d back a federal lands transfer proposal if elected.

Balyeat adds that AFP will send the survey to all legislative candidates again in a few months, between the primary election and the general.

The survey hints not only at issues that will likely pop up on the conservative agenda in 2015, but also who might drive those efforts. Numerous respondents indicated they’d also be willing to cosponsor or even sponsor bills to establish tuition tax credits, oppose Medicaid expansion and cut the state’s income tax. In fact, several incumbents on AFP’s list have already done so; Blasdel carried a charter school measure in 2011.

Any respondents who do wind up in Helena next year won’t have to look far for examples of legislation on these issues. The nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has developed a model bill that addresses nearly every one of the questions posed in AFP’s survey. Several of the listed candidates are already ALEC members, like 2013 Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann. Balyeat says any similarity between AFP’s questions and ALEC model policy is purely coincidental. He and his state chapter have had “no contact” with ALEC.

“If you see similarities,” Balyeat says, “ALEC may have gotten some of their ideas from me. I don’t know.”

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