By Tim Leeds
Area legislators will attend a public forum in Havre on Monday night to answer questions from constituents and give an update on the 2003 legislative session.
"I think the main thing we'll be talking about is the budget," Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester said Wednesday.
Tester, a Democrat from Big Sandy, said many major budget issues, like possible tax increases, haven't really been addressed yet as the Legislature faces a projected $240 million deficit over the next two years.
"The first 45 days have been a warmup, obviously," he said. "The next 45 days we're going to earn our pay. There's going to be some gut-wrenching decisions to be made in the areas of program cuts and taxes."
The public forum, sponsored by the Havre Daily News, will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building on the Montana State University-Northern campus.
It will happen during the four-day break when House bills are transmitted to the Senate and Senate bills are transmitted to the House. The Legislature reconvenes on Wednesday.
Tester, Sen. Ken "Kim" Hansen, D-Harlem, Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, and Rep. John Witt, R-Carter, have been invited to the forum.
Each legislator will have three to five minutes to speak. Then the program will be opened to questions from the audience, moderated by Havre Daily News publisher Harvey Brock.
Brock said he will try to give anyone who comes with a question the opportunity to ask it.
"They're always down there. Now they're up here, so here's your chance," he said.
Witt said he plans to talk about bills he is sponsoring, including a bill to reduce the local share of costs in creating regional water systems like the Rocky Boy North Central Regional Water System. But the biggest issue will be the budget, he said.
"I'll probably talk a lot about the budget and where we're going and where I think we should go," he said.
Hansen said the only thing besides the budget he expects to talk about is a bill sponsored by Windy Boy to help pay for the cleanup of the Zortman and Landusky mines. Hansen will introduce the bill in the Senate.
He said he had hoped more issues about balancing the budget would have been addressed in the Legislature by now.
"I guess I'm very disappointed. Up until now we really haven't discussed that," he said. "It isn't going to be until the next go-round."
Bergren said he will touch on several bills he is carrying, and talk about the coal tax trust fund, but his main topic will also be the budget.
Windy Boy said he plans to talk about many bills.
"There's a lot of things happening here," he added.
His measures include the mine cleanup bill, a bill authorizing construction of a monument to honor Native American war veterans at the Capitol, a bill to improve governmental relations between the state and tribes, and a joint resolution asking the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to recognize the unique spiritual practices of each tribe and support programs, like U.S. Sen. Max Baucus's federal American Indian Welfare Reform Act, that are designed to help provide self-determination and self-sufficiency.
Musgrove said he has many concerns, but balancing the budget is certainly one of the biggest.
"It's going to impact people and the lives of our most vulnerable people," he said.
He added that people have been contacting him and the other legislators regularly, but the local forum will be an important tool.
"I would look forward to all the concerns they have," Musgrove said. "Communication is so important to the process."
"I think anytime you can get input from the people it's something you should take advantage of, as representatives of the people," he said.