By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
On a brief intermission from work in Helena, local legislators will be in Havre tonight to discuss the status of their own bills and those affecting the Hi-Line.
Jobs, health care and education are the major issues at the Legislature this year, Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said today.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, who is Senate president, will also give the public a preview of what is likely to come in the second half of the Legislature.
"The main driver this next half, and this isn't unusual, is the budget," he said today.
Bergren and Tester will be joined tonight by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, as they talk about how decisions in this year's Legislature will affect the Hi-Line. Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem, could not be reached this morning to say if he would attend. Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, has remained in Helena and will not attend.
Tester's own bills have focused on three areas: health care, renewable energy and water for the Hi-Line. He's also guiding the progress of education legislation through the Senate as Senate president.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled last year that the state does not adaquately fund education. Legislators have worked this year to meet the court's mandate that the state define and fund a "quality" education.
"I think we're well on the way to meeting the education community's challenges," he said today. "Financially, we're not going to solve all their problems in one session."
Tester said he was glad to see a definition of quality education come out of the Senate, as well as bills that allocate $70 million in education spending, just short of the $80 million spending increase in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget.
Windy Boy said he is happy to say that seven of nine bills he sponsored this year are alive and well. A bill that would protect tribal health care from changes in Medicaid has passed to the Senate. A hearing will be held this week.
In addition, Windy Boy has sponsored a bill that will extend the Old Forts Trail both north and south, extending the reaches of tourism as well, he said today.
He described the mood at the Legislature this year as optimistic and high energy.
Bergren has taken on a role in leadership as a whip in the House. In this role, he helps Democrats strategize as a party, as well as find ways to work with Republicans, he said.
He said the fact that both he and Tester are in leadership positions is good for the Hi-Line.
"It gives us a chance to make sure that the less populated regions have a say in the leadership and the direction that we're traveling," he said.
While Bergren's ethanol bill was tabled in the House, the bill carried by Sen. Jerry Black, D-Shelby, is still alive. In what he believes could be good news for the Hi-Line, Bergren learned a few days ago that Black will ask for amendments to his ethanol bill that will make it virtually identical to Bergren's bill.
The bill would require that when ethanol production in Montana reaches a 45 million-ton threshold, low octane gasoline would need to contain 10 percent ethanol. Mid-octane gas would be required to contain 5 percent ethanol, and 91 octane gasoline would remain ethanol-free.
If passed into law, it would create a $250 million industry in Montana. "That's big money and it has to happen in the east," as opposed to western Montana, he said today.
Opponents have said the changes should be market-driven.
The goal in the coming weeks will be to make sure the budget is put together in the best possible manner, Musgrove said today.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee's natural resources subcommittee, Musgrove said he has pushed for issues important on the Hi-Line, including soil conservation and work on the St. Mary Diversion. He said he thinks another bill he's sponsored, to help more school districts provide retirement plans for teachers, will make it through the second half of the session.
Musgrove could not return from Helena this week because he is caring for his wife, Sue, who suffered a stroke in January. Doctors advised that she not make such a long trip. Musgrove said she is recuperating at their temporary home in Helena and doing "extremely well."