By Tim Leeds
Democratic legislators told people at a meeting in Havre Thursday night that they are moving forward to find bipartisan solutions to the state's budget woes.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said he and House Minority Leader Dave Wanzenreid, D-Missoula, are trying to set up weekly meetings with House Speaker Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake, and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, to find common ground between parties and the legislative houses in balancing the budget and other key issues.
"It's not going to be easy, but I think it can be done," Tester said.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said bipartisanship is the key.
"Our state will only come out of this if we work together and make the right choices," he said.
Tester, Musgrove and Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, talked to more than 25 people at the meeting.
Musgrove said he led an attempt, which failed, to get the question of tapping the Coal Tax Trust Fund on the floor of the House late Wednesday. The vote failed, but it made the Republicans nervous, Musgrove said.
"We were promised it will come out on the floor next Wednesday," he said.
The Republicans have said that the fund, which is held in trust for future problems and opportunities, should be used to help eliminate the state's deficit, projected to be $240 million or more. If the trust is not tapped, programs will have to be cut more deeply, the Republican leadership says.
Musgrove said the Republicans have been delaying bringing the issue to the floor. Several attempts to bring the bill out of committee have failed.
The Republicans are holding back bringing the bill to the floor until the time is politically expedient, Musgrove said, but he and his party want to get it out so it can be voted on, and probably defeated.
"The sooner we get that done the sooner we can get to working," he said.
Once the trust is tapped, it would be gone, Tester said. The experiences of other states have shown that, he added.
"That coal trust will be gone in six years if you touch it now," he said.
Tester said there is no chance the bill can pass. To tap the trust requires a three-fourths majority in favor.
"If it comes down to the Coal Tax Trust Fund or cuts, it's going to be cuts," he said. "You can't get the three-fourths majority. That's just the way it is."
He said the budget can't be balanced with cuts alone, however.
"We can cut programs and consolidate programs, but we can't do it to the tune of $243 million," Tester said.
Musgrove said there are many proposals in the 2003 Legislature for new revenue sources.
"There's enough tax programs there for everybody to hate," he quipped.
But the tax committee doesn't seem to be moving very quickly on any of them, and may wait too long to start moving on them, he added.
"They're not doing their job at this point, and they may not have time to do their job," he said. "And I'm very concerned about that."
Tester told the audience he is glad the question of legislative redistricting is out of the Legislature and into the courts, so the legislature can move on to other business.
The Montana legislative districts must be redesigned after every federal census to reflect changes in population. The Republicans, who claim the new districts were gerrymandered to favor Democrats, passed a bill directing the secretary of state to refuse plans that create districts varying more than 1 percent in population from the ideal size of 9,022. Martz signed the bill into law on Feb. 4.
The Montana Constitution directs the secretary of state to accept the district plan submitted by the commission, but Brown said he can't accept the plan until the court system rules on the constitutionality of the plan and on the new law.
Democrats on the commission said they feel the plan is constitutionally sound, and that it will withstand the test in the courts.
Tester said the issue is "pretty well done," as far as the Legislature is concerned, and hopes that the legislators can rise above the partisan division its debate created.
"It tends to restrain you when you're trying to get things done that affect people," he said.