By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Things might look rosy since Democrats have gained control of the governor's office and the Senate, and may well end up in control of the House, local Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday. But January's legislative session will still be very difficult, they said.
Still, they said, it also presents great opportunities for the Hi-Line and the rest of Montana.
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said the projected budget surplus of $279 million is "smoke and mirrors."
"And if it's not smoke and mirrors, it's already spoken for four or five times over," he added.
Musgrove, Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, and Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, spoke Wednesday at a meeting sponsored by Bear Paw Development Corp. in Havre. Local elected leaders, members of economic development agencies and organizations, and representatives of chambers of commerce and several statewide organizations attended the meeting.
Providing funding for education will be particularly difficult, they said, in light of a court-ordered mandate to revamp education funding so the state meets its constitutional obligation to provide a quality education.
The state Supreme Court in November upheld a lower court decision requiring the Legislature to define a quality education and to ensure the state is funding it.
Tester said significant changes will have to be made in education funding.
"We've got our work cut out for us on education. We can't just scramble the eggs and put them back out. The court will see right through that," he said.
Musgrove said he still has "one item on my Christmas list that is very important" - resolving who will fill the seat in a disputed House election in Lake County. That will determine which party will take control of the state House.
The official canvass showed Democrat Jeanne Windham and Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore tied in the election for House District 12. Gov. Judy Martz on Wednesday appointed Jore to the seat, giving the Republicans a 50-49 advantage in the House.
A lawsuit filed in state District Court claims that seven ballots, marked both for Jore and the Republican candidate, should be counted for neither person. That would give Windham the victory and the job of speaker of the house would go to a Democrat because state law requires the speaker to be from the party of the governor in such cases.
Musgrove said that court decision could have the greatest impact on what happens in the 2005 Legislature.
The three legislators said there is a great opportunity for change with the new makeup of state government.
The Democrats haven't controlled the Senate since 1995, the House since 1993 and the governor's office since 1989.
"We have the ability, I think, for the first time in a decade to get some of the things we need to get the Hi-Line turned around," Musgrove said.
He said he thinks water projects like rehabilitating the St. Mary Diversion and creating regional water systems like the Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System will receive support from the governor and the Legislature, and that he thinks there will be more support for efforts to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes across the state.
Bergren said he is sponsoring or working with sponsors of bills that could help the Hi-Line economy.
That includes a bill being sponsored by Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, that would require gasoline containing ethanol to be sold in the state.
Creating ethanol plants would keep 10 million bushels of wheat and 38 million bushels of feed-grade barley in the state instead of shipping it to the Pacific Rim, and would create good-paying jobs and add value to local ag products, Bergren said.
Bergren, who was elected the Democratic caucus leader, has also taken on the job of mentoring new legislators, he said.
"There are 16 freshmen on our side," he added.
Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway asked the legislators how they are going to find the funding to meet the court-ordered mandate to provide a quality education.
The three said doing that will be difficult.
Musgrove said increasing the state's share of education funding from about 60 percent to the 80 percent level it was about 10 years ago would take a $300 million increase.
Musgrove said the tax system will probably have to be adjusted to increase education funding.
Tester said he doesn't think the $300 million figure is accurate, but that something will have to be done to pay for a quality education.
"Unless you cut programs, somebody's going to have to pay the bill," he said.
He added that the Legislature will have to look beyond the next election when it works on education.
"We have to have a long-term vision," he said.
Bergren said many solutions proposed so far are Band-Aids. He said the issue has to be looked at closely, including making sure all schools can justify remaining open.
Tester said he hopes the next session will be more amiable, with a reduction in partisan politics. He said he hopes to facilitate that in his position as Senate president.
He added that the partisanship in the Legislature has been "ratchetted up" in each of the three sessions he has served, and said he blames term limits.
"There isn't time to deal with relationships," Tester said, "building relationships to work together and get things done."
The three answered questions from the audience.
Larry Putnam, administrator of Phillips County Hospital in Malta, asked the legislators to help economic development companies like Bear Paw Development do their jobs.
Bear Paw Development gave Malta technical support in building a new $4.4 million hospital, Putnam said.
"Please listen to (economic development organizations) and do help them. They really do provide a value to us," he said.
Annmarie Robinson and Paul Tuss, deputy director and executive director of Bear Paw Development, told the legislators about some bills the economic development organization is supporting. Those include creating a new fund within the coal tax trust fund to provide money for economic development.
Tuss said the Legislature also needs to be careful that it doesn't "mess with things that are working."
He listed the Montana Cooperative Development Center, the small business development centers and the state microbusiness development program.
He also said Bear Paw Development will be looking for funding to continue a new service it added this fall: value-added agriculture assistance. Bear Paw received a one-time $75,000 grant to create the program to help ag producers develop and market value-added products, and he wants funding to continue.
"I think this is a wonderful opportunity," he said.