By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A powerful union and Montana's two major utilities were among the biggest spenders who tried to influence the lawmaking process during the 2003 Legislature, reports filed with the state show.
The teachers' union, MEA-MFT, formed through the merger of the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers, outspent all other special-interest groups during the four-month session.
According to documents submitted to the state political practices commissioner by Tuesday's deadline, the union spent $98,019 on lobbying the Legislature. And that amount didn't include $35,000 in expenses incurred before the session on what the organization called ''research and bill development.''
PPL Montana, which owns and operates the electrical generation plants once held by Montana Power Co., spent $84,107, and NorthWestern Energy spent $75,621.
Although not all of the final reports covering the month of April had been submitted by Tuesday, preliminary estimates indicated 596 groups or businesses spent close to $3.2 million for the 90-day session. That figure compares with about $3.1 million spent in the 2001 Legislature.
State agencies spent almost $152,000 to lobby the Legislature, although that number could rise as final figures are submitted by seven offices or departments that had not filed their last reports by late afternoon Tuesday.
Most expenses were for the salaries of those doing the lobbying, whether government officials or hired lobbyists.
MEA-MFT's position as top spender was no surprise, since education funding was one of the hottest issue during the Legislature. With lawmakers facing a $230 million deficit and public schools accounting for a large piece of the state revenue pie, debate over the issue continued until the final days.
In the end, legislators tinkered with school aid by changing the way money flows to the districts and requiring schools to begin paying retirement costs of federally funded employees out of the federal money they receive.
The most significant result of the session was the decision not to replace the estimated $15 million drop in state aid due to expected declines in enrollment.
Besides school funding, MEA-MFT and its eight lobbyists were involved in promoting a pay raise for state workers. The union represents about 2,300 such employees and was one of several groups behind a $30,000 mid-session radio and newspaper advertising campaign to drum up support for a raise.
Three other education groups - Montana School Boards Association, Montana Rural Education Association and Montana Quality Education Association - spent a combined $66,110 on lobbying.
PPL, which had a dozen lobbyists and tracked 20 bills, successfully fought a bill that would have doubled its property taxes. The Senate measure never made to the floor for debate.
NorthWestern, which took over Montana Power's electrical and natural gas transmission operations, also won a major legislative battle with passage of a bill shielding the company from a lawsuit by former Montana Power shareholders.
Its reports listed several instances in which the utility entertained lawmakers. In January, for example, NorthWestern spent $398 to treat the members of House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
Other top spenders on lobbying were the Billings Deaconess Clinic, $69,072; Montana Association of Realtors, $58,680; Montana Association of Counties, $55,749; Montana Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Association, $54,612; Montana Residents for Fair Property Taxation, $51,851; Montana Farm Bureau Federation, $49,790; and Montana Medical Association, $43,395.
The office of state Auditor John Morrison topped the list of state government lobbyist spending, with $19,174. The Department of Public Health and Human Services was second at $17,655, followed by the Department of Administration, $16,469; Natural Resources and Conservation, $11,836; and Secretary of State Bob Brown's office, $10,524.