By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
While area legislators have different opinions about how the Legislature performed this year, they agree on a couple of issues.
One is that while the state's long-term problems were not solved in the session, some good laws were passed.
Another is that a special session may be needed by next year to tackle the budget again if the economy doesn't improve.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said his main concern is funding programs in the Department of Public Health and Human Services next year. If the economy doesn't grow enough to provide more revenue next year, reduced state services could put more pressure on local governments, and a special session may be needed to prevent that, he said.
"It puts increased liabilities on the local level. That, I think would draw us back," he said.
Rep. John Witt of Carter, the sole Republican legislator in the Havre area, said he saw revenue projections drop by $12 million between the start of the session and the end. There could be problems if that continues, he said.
"(A special session) wouldn't surprise me," he said.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said he doesn't expect the economy to improve enough to fund next year's budget.
"I think we will have to go in and adjust things, probably somewhere in 2004," he said.
Witt said he thinks that the Legislature performed as well as it could under the circumstances. The session started with the need to eliminate a projected deficit of about $230 million. He would have preferred more long-term solutions than were passed, he said.
"It will help in the short term," he added.
The proposed sales tax would have been a good idea, Witt said, and he added that he thinks the state should start tapping the coal tax trust fund.
"We should cap it and start flowing some money into the general fund," he said.
The Legislature rejected several bills that would have tapped the trust. Those bills require a 75 percent majority in both the House and Senate to pass.
Freshman Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, said it was difficult for the Democrats to get much done, with Republicans holding majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as the governor's office.
"I know that a lot of us who went down there had the full intent to stick to our guns, which we did," he said. "It was kind of tough since we weren't in the majority."
Witt, who has served in three sessions, said he thinks term limits have reduced the ability to reach compromise.
"Term limits are creating a lot more gridlock than people realize. It was virtually impossible to work both sides of the aisle," he said. "Democrats and Republicans weren't going to work together. It was more about the next session."
Freshman Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem, said dealing with the bureaucratic and legislative system was frustrating for him.
"I'm a hands-on guy. I like to get things done and get things fixed and that's not how state government works," he said. "The other thing was how the party lines were drawn in the sand."
The Democrats offered some ideas, some good and some not so good, Hansen said. the Republicans simply weren't going to consider them, he said.
Havre Democrat Rep. Bob Bergren, also a freshman legislator, said he still had hopes until the last two weeks of the session. The actions then "really bummed me out," he said.
The increases in revenue he did see - including $57 million in fees, plus higher taxes on cigarettes and motel beds - would be fine if the revenue were being used to fund state services, Bergren said.
"(The Republicans) decided it needed to go to the rich people for a tax break," he said. "I'm not against a tax break, but the timing was horrible."
The Legislature approved funding of programs at about the level requested by Gov. Judy Martz through a mixture of program cuts and shifts of funding and raising taxes and fees. The final budget contains a surplus required by the state constitution.
Bergren said at a meeting sponsored by the Hill County Democratic Party Tuesday that the surplus cannot last. As income tax cuts included in the package take effect, the state is guaranteed a deficit, he said. How bad the deficit is depends on how the economy is doing, he added.
Some of the programs that were cut to balance the budget will hurt the working poor, like programs to provide money for child care, he said in an interview. Some of the programs have been cut for three or four years straight, he added.
"Those are just fundamental programs that should be funded. I'm not against cutting any program if there's fat there. Some of these programs are just skeletons," he said.
Windy Boy said some good things passed, like his bill to improve relations between state and tribal governments, and others failed, like his bill that would have required the state to fund water treatment at the Zortman-Landusky mine. He will reintroduce that bill next session, he added.
Windy Boy asked that his Zortman-Landusky bill be killed after the funding source was changed through amendment.
Witt echoed Windy Boy's comment. Some good things passed; others can be tried again, he said.
A bill Witt sponsored to allow a multimillion-dollar entertainment facility in Butte failed, but it isn't dead, he said.
"That would have generated a tremendous amount a money," he said. "I think that bill will be back."
Bergren said there were some successes. The six bills he sponsored passed. Although none solved the state's major problems, fixes like increasing the ability of businesses to pool for health insurance will help, he said.
"They're all little pieces, tools in the drawer, so to speak," he said.
Tester said the problems with the partisan nature of the session became apparent from the start, when the Republicans started debating the legislative districts drawn by the Democrat-controlled reapportionment commission, and throwing out the governor's proposed budget and going back to 2000 levels for the agencies' starting budgets.
"It was very partisan, much more than I would have liked," he said. "We went in with the vision that we would work together and find common solutions, and there were parts where we did, but not on the budget."