HELENA – From his office in Missoula, University of Montana political science professor Jim Lopach has watched legislative politics for decades. This session, he said, is different.
He said he is surprised by the boldness of lawmakers looking to get at the roots of things, to shake up what has long been settled, and by their willingness to challenge the powers that be, from President Barak Obama down to city and county governments.
“I think it's really radical – a very radical session,” Lopach said.
So far conservatives have made aggressive moves to cut spending, roll back long-standing environmental regulations and defy the federal government on issues ranging from health care reform to the execution of federal search warrants.
Republicans this session are challenging Montana voters’ intentions on medical marijuana, local ordinances expanding gay rights, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings on abortion and the limits of state control.
“It's stunning to what degree the session has made itself the center of political power,” Lopach said.
The confidence and empowerment comes in part, he said, from Montana’s practice of electing 125 of its 150 legislators every two years. That ensures that most legislators are dramatically imprinted by the politics of the moment, he added.
Montana’s relatively sparsely populated legislative districts also magnify the influence of small, parochial groups, he said. If legislators ran in larger districts, they would most likely have to temper their views.
“Maybe then the Legislature would be more representative of the Montana electorate,” Lopach said. “I don't know if they are now.”
The tea party’s take
Tim Ravndal, president of the Lewis and Clark’s Conservative Tea Party, said there’s no question that the conservative control of the Legislature has helped his group’s cause.
He singled out new Republican legislators like Rep. Derek Sees of Whitefish, for his efforts to nullify federal laws and expand state’s rights, and veterans like Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel for his bills expanding gun rights.
“We feel like we've made some strides forward,” Ravndal said.
But he isn't seeing the success he had hoped for after November’s election. He said some Republican lawmakers who ran on tea party platforms of shrinking government aren't keeping their promises.
“If you're talking about a Republican, the term is RINO, (Republican) In Name Only,” he said.
As the session ramped up, some Republicans grew frustrated with nullification debates and helped kill two of Skees’ nullification bills. They also watered down a bill that would have given local sheriffs authority over all law enforcement, include federal officers.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, seemed to make the point in a halftime press conference when he said individual lawmakers were free to advance their own bills, but the GOP’s priorities were creating jobs and boosting the economy.
Ravndal blamed some of the Republican reluctance on last week’s frantic pace. Common sense, he said, was sacrificed in the interest of moving the process along.
But he's working the long game, he added, focusing already on the next local and state elections.
“The next session, certainly, we're going to be one step ahead on kicking the door open further for the freedoms of people,” he said.
Business and environment
Jon Bennion, longtime lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, described the session as the most positive climate he's seen for business. He said he is particularly pleased with the bipartisan interest in workers’ compensation reform and effort to free business from regulations.
Although both parties trade shots about the other's inaction on jobs, Bennion said he's more optimistic than he’s ever been at halftime. But it’s a long way to the session’s ends, he cautioned.
Workers' comp reform tops his clients’ priority list, he said, but rolling back environmental regulations runs a close second.
He said he is especially pleased with revisions to the Montana Environmental Policy Act endorsed by the Senate last week. The changes would allow moderate and reasonable depletion and degradation of the state’s natural resources and would include the state’s economic well-being among the criteria officials need to consider when reviewing projects.
The changes in environmental laws are some of the most sweeping since they were enacted in the 1970s, and environmentalists who have defended them for nearly 40 years are distraught.
Anne Hedges, a longtime lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said this is hands-down the worst session ever for environmental concerns. “The only bill that they can point to that creates more jobs is the gutting of the Montana Environmental Policy Act,” she said.
“It is like nothing before,” she said. “It is industry flexing its muscle. They are trying to cut out public involvement and public information.”
So far, Hedges can point to one or two “bad” bills she has helped defeat, but said the fate of many of the bills on her list may ultimately rest in Gov. Brian Schweitzer's hands.
Sensing opportunity, religious and social conservatives are pressing hard this session to reset the debate on abortion and to block any recognition of gay rights.
Like Hedges, Kelson Young, of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Lindsay Love, of Planned Parenthood, share a deep frustration and hope Schweitzer’s vetoes will back them up.
Young said her cause found bipartisan support in previous sessions, but not this time. Instead, she is playing defense against 30 to 40 bills that she said could compromise protection for victims. Love said she is fighting a similarly dismal battle for abortion rights.
Some committee hearings have been insulting and abusive, they said, but their biggest frustration is with conservatives who take strong stands for individual liberties while remaining hard set against abortion and gay rights.
“Apparently they don't believe in those things for women, children, gays, immigrants — anyone else,” Young said.
Priorities for spending
The session’s final reputation may rest on the decisions it makes on spending for the state’s biggest ongoing obligations: education, social services for the needy and institutions like prisons.
To date, Republican-controlled subcommittees have recommended removing about $240 million in spending from Gov. Schweitzer’s proposed budget and they have reduced its revenues by about $30 million. If such cuts hold, Democrats predict they will place heavy pressure on schools and local governments to raise local taxes and tuition or make deep cuts — or both.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the state’s teachers union, doesn't understand the GOP cuts from Schweitzer's proposal, which amount to $73 million from K-12 schools and higher education alone.
Such cuts would cost Montanans jobs, which is supposedly the Republicans’ top priority, he said. That focus seems muddied by social issues, he added. “Is their agenda guns, gays and immigrants or is their agenda jobs?” Feaver asked.
He is also troubled by the scrutiny over state workers’ pay, which has been frozen for the past two years. “This general anti-government, anti-public employee rhetoric has got to stop,” he said. “And I don’t know if it will in this Legislature.”
Proposed cuts in the governor’s budget for social services are drawing fire too. So far, legislators have recommended taking nearly $54 million from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Dan Carlson, a tall rancher from the Northern Cheyenne reservation, drove to Helena for a protest sponsored by the Montana Organizing Project. As he watched a young woman in a wheelchair pose for a picture on the Capitol steps, he said worried about the cuts.
“I’m hoping that they come to their senses and restore some of the ones that are for the real needy,” he said.
(Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at (208) 816-0809 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)