By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Lawmakers face a lot of uncertainty four days before the start of the 2005 legislative session. House committee members and chairmen have not been picked. Education funding must be reformed. Increasing costs for programs may offset a projected budget surplus.
"The issues are the same - too many needs, too little money - but we're going to do our best to do what people of Montana expect in the Legislature," said Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy.
The procedure for appointing House committee members and chairmen has not been determined. A Montana Supreme Court decision Tuesday giving a Lake County seat to Democrat Jeanne Windham split the House evenly between Democrats and Republicans. While state law requires the speaker of the House to be from the same political party as the governor when that occurs, it doesn't specify how committees are created.
A subcommittee of the House Rules Committee will meet Sunday to come up with a proposal for the full committee.
The Democrats also have a 27-23 majority in the Senate, giving their party control of both houses and the governor's office for the first time since Republican Gov. Stan Stephens was elected in 1988.
Rep. John Witt, R-Carter, who represents parts of Chouteau and Toole counties and all of Liberty County, said the Supreme Court decision could create problems.
"A lot of things will probably be discussed in caucuses Sunday night, but I don't even know how much will be answered then," he said. "The Supreme Court made their decision. I still don't know how that will affect the makeup of the Legislature."
Witt said he is not sure the Democrats' advantage will lead to more cooperation across the aisle, which Democratic leaders have called for.
"I think there are some ways that it can work out if people want to communicate and reach a consensus. But if they don't there will be more gridlock than ever before," he said.
Tester, who represents part of Chouteau and McCone counties and all of Judith Gap, Fergus, Petroleum and Garfield counties, said he will try to prevent gridlock as Senate president.
"I'll do my best to make sure we put partisanship away," he said. "Partisanship is for campaigns."
Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he expects - and hopes - that partisan bickering is reduced this session. Last session, "I was sick to my stomach" because of the partisanship, he said.
Despite the Democrats' majority, they will still need to work with lawmakers across the aisle, Hansen said. He thinks that will happen.
"I really do believe we're going to see some real workmanship this time," he said.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, who represents parts of Hill and Blaine counties, said the decision on how to fill House committees will have a major impact on the session. It could put him in charge of the House Appropriations natural resources and conservation subcommittee.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, who represents part of Havre and western Hill County, said the change in leadership could affect his role as well. He is the leader of the Democratic caucus and is acting as a mentor for the 17 freshman Democrat representatives. He said he could be elected to another House leadership position, although he wouldn't say if he's seeking one.
Tester said the Democrats' control of state government will require them to be very careful. Many problems will cost money to fix, and several things could be "budget-busters," he said, including a loss of value in the state employee and teacher pension programs and the increasing costs associated from a state takeover of the district court functions.
"We definitely have to be very deliberate, very thoughtful and we have to be responsible as we turn the state around," he said.
Witt said that until the Supreme Court decision changed the makeup of the House, he would have been chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and would have sponsored major bills, including the state appropriations bill and bills prioritizing applications for renewable resource grants and loans.
Musgrove said one of the bills he is sponsoring could have a major impact on one of the state's most important resources - water.
Musgrove's bill would ensure the state has money for matching funds required for federal appropriations for regional water systems, like the Rocky Boy's/Northcentral Montana Regional Water System that will provide water to 18,000 people.
"I think water issues are going to be one of the leading issues in the natural resources area," he added.
Tester also said water will be a hot topic. Water adjudication, water compacts, regional water systems and the rehabilitation of the St. Mary Diversion will be major issues, he predicted.
"You just don't do anything without water, and quality water," he said.
Musgrove also is sponsoring a bill to increase funding of the state's Teacher Retirement Service. The pension funds lost value in the stock market's decline following 9/11, and doesn't have enough money to fund 30 years of payments as required by state law.
"Because of the poor investment returns in 2001 and 2002, it took some heavy hits there," Musgrove said.
In light of a Supreme Court ruling that found the state's funding of education deficient, Tester said devising a new way to fund education will be a top priority, although increasing funding enough to meet the court mandate will take many years.
"I want to make sure the Legislature keeps control and doesn't lose it to the courts," he said.
Witt said the Republicans want to take part in deciding how to spend the budget surplus, which could be an issue of contention. The surplus was created by decisions made when the state government was still controlled by conservatives, he said.
"How we're going to spread that $300 million around, how are we going to agree on that?" Witt asked. "I think (the Republicans) want to have a big part on the say on that."
Witt said he thinks legislation could be passed to promote the use of ethanol. Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer supports it, as do
many Republicans, he said.
"I think we could see something happening there," he said.
Bergren, who had intended to sponsor an ethanol bill of his own, now plans to sponsor a bill sponsored by Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, when it comes to the House. That bill would require that gasoline sold in the state to be 10 percent ethanol.
Bergren said that before he sponsors the bill he wants to see it amended to ensure the ethanol used is a Montana-made product.
Requiring gas be blended with ethanol "will definitely benefit the Golden Triangle," Bergren said.
A proposed ethanol plant near Great Falls would use 10 million bushels of wheat and 38 million bushels of feed-grade barley a year, and would provide 400 jobs while the plant was constructed and would provide 80 to 100 permanent jobs once it was operating, he said.
With the increasing demand for ethanol across the nation - California recently enacted a law requiring its gasoline to be 10 percent ethanol - Montana could eventually sell its product out of state, he added.
Tester, who is sponsoring a bill to revise the tax structure to encourage wind energy development, said the state should encourage alternative energy.
"We just have to push the envelope on those kinds of things," he said.
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, could not available for comment.