By JOHN MacDONALDAssociated Press Writer
HELENA - The Berlin Wall was still standing the last time a Democrat won the governor's chair. George W. Bush was only running a baseball team when the Democrats last controlled the state Senate.
But the face of Montana politics changed in 2004.
The shift of political winds that swept a Democrat into the governor's office for the first time in 20 years, and gave Democrats control of the state Senate for the first time in more than a decade ranked as the top news story of 2004 in a survey of Montana journalists.
The state Supreme Court's ruling that Montana's system of education funding is unconstitutional ranked second in the survey of reporters and editors at Associated Press member newspapers and broadcast stations. The survival story of two U.S. Forest Service workers who escaped death in a wilderness plane crash and hiked to safety was named the third biggest news story of the year.
Rounding out the top 10:
4. The Bureau of Land Management says the potential for natural gas drilling in the Rocky Mountain Front is suspended.
5. Voters reject an initiative to overturn a ban on using cyanide in gold mining, but pass separate initiatives to legalize medical marijuana and ban gay marriages.
6. Wayne Hogan, athletic director at the University of Montana, resigns from a sports program awash in red ink.
7. A federal judge allows snowmobiles to return to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but with limits.
8. NorthWestern Corp. emerges from a lengthy bankruptcy reorganization.
9. Two young boys are found dead in a field after consuming massive amounts of alcohol.
10. Montana approves the return of bison hunting.
Montana Democrats had predicted during a number of previous elections that each would be the year they made big political gains. Their boasts finally came true in 2004. Brian Schweitzer, a farmer from Whitefish who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Republican Conrad Burns in 2000, beat political veteran Bob Brown to win the governor's seat on Nov. 2.
Schweitzer had bragged of his willingness to consider new ideas and chose a Republican senator, John Bohlinger, as his running mate.
In an election year that saw record turnout, voters also changed the makeup of the state Senate. Democrats, who have been the minority party for a decade, gained a 27-23 majority.
Republicans grumbled the legislative advances were the result of a skewed redrawing of districts by the opposing party. Democrats said the results showed Montanans were ready for change.
2. School Funding:
The state Supreme Court in November upheld a lower court ruling that Montana's system of funding its public schools is not constitutional.
In a unanimous decision, justices said the current system is not based on ''educationally relevant'' factors and that state aid is inadequate, meaning Montana students are not receiving a quality education.
The ruling put the decision of defining what constitutes a quality education in the hands of the 2005 Legislature. It won't be an easy task and lawmakers already are looking for ways to address the issue, with most acknowledging the immediate solution will require increased funding for schools. The court ordered that a new funding method be in place by October 2005.
3. Plane Crash:
The September crash of an airplane in a wilderness area near Glacier National Park made headlines across the country because of the amazing story of survival by two of the plane's passengers.
The plane, carrying four Forest Service employees and a pilot, was on its way into the Great Bear-Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex when it crashed into a mountain and burst into flames. Authorities initially said they believed all aboard were killed. But Jodee Hogg and Matt Ramige survived, hiking for two days through the wilderness to safety. Pilot Jim Long and Forest Service workers Davita Bryant and Ken Good died in the crash and resulting fire.
4. Rocky Mountain Front:
The Bureau of Land Management announced in October that drilling for natural gas on BLM land in the Rocky Mountain Front was no longer being considered. The agency said it suspended work on an environmental study for the Front's Blackleaf area, where a Canadian company wanted to drill.
5. Voter Initiatives:
Voters rejected an industry-backed initiative to reverse a ban on using cyanide in gold mining. The ban had been approved by voters just six years earlier. Voters also approved separate initiatives to, among other things, ban gay marriages, legalize medical marijuana and raise tobacco taxes.
University of Montana Athletic Director Wayne Hogan resigned in March amid reports that the sports program was facing a nearly $1 million deficit due to high spending and accounting errors. Former football head coach Don Reed was brought in to replace him.
Confusion over conflicting court rulings cut into snowmobiling in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks during the winter of 2003-04. But in October, federal Judge Clarence Brimmer struck down a Clinton administration phase-out of snowmobiles, clearing the way for a new three-year plan requiring cleaner-burning machines and a cap on snowmobile numbers.
8. NorthWestern Bankruptcy:
NorthWestern Corp., parent company of Montana's NorthWestern Energy, finally emerged from a lengthy bankruptcy reorganization Nov. 1. The South Dakota-based utility filed for Chapter 11 protection in September 2003 after months of struggling to gets its finances back on track.
9. Liquor Deaths:
Two 11-year-old boys, Frankie Nicolai III and Justin Benoist, were found dead in a snowy field outside Ronan in March. Authorities said the two boys passed out and died after consuming massive amounts of liquor.
10. Bison Hunt:
More than a decade after suspending bison hunts because of protests, Montana approved the return of hunting bison that wander from Yellowstone National Park. The first abbreviated hunt is set to begin in January and run for a month, with 10 licenses being issued.