By Ron VandenBoom
Energy and education top the list of legislative concerns for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, but a few bright spots have still managed to worked their way through the gloom.
"I think the fence bill is well on its way to happening and I think it's very workable, Tester said in an interview Tuesday. "It will be a park for multiple use and I think that's good news."
The bill, simply known today as "the fence bill," has passed the Montana Senate and is expected to work it's way through the House without much difficulty, Tester said.
The bill would exempt Beaver Creek Park from Montana Transportation Department requirements that a fence follow the road leading through the park. The bill will allow for a meandering fence that will still allow grazing to occur in the winter months in the park and easy access to the camping and picnic areas in the summer.
Tester said he is also pleased that his bill expanding the state's jury pool to include licensed drivers, instead of just registered voters, is meeting with favorable responses.
And his origin labeling bill that will mark farm and ranch products as Montana made also looks as though it will soon be law.
But it's hard to escape the two overriding concerns facing the legislature energy and funding education.
"If we don't address that positively in some way it could be a total disaster for this state," Tester said, referring to the looming energy crisis, and adding that education from K-20 isn't looking very cheery either.
Hidden because of the two crisis issues is Health and Human Services, which Tester says is being buried behind the major issues.
"And because of education and energy," he said. "Economic development ain't going to happen either."
So is there an answer the legislature has overlooked?
Tester said he would go back and revisit what the legislature did two years ago with the business equipment tax particularly as it pertains to the corporations that do not headquarter in this state.
"We did not benchmark the tax relief to small businesses which we should have done," he said. "And there was no focus as to how we were going to attract businesses to come in here which there should have been."
As a consequence nothing economically has been gained, Tester said.
Tester recognizes that a lagging economy, coupled with the fact that the Republican controlled legislature approved tax cuts during the last two sessions, has left the state short of tax revenue needed to meet necessary expenses, such as education. With the cost of energy threatening to increase dramatically the cost of doing business, it seems unlikely to Tester that the economy can expect a boost any time soon.
Ultimately it comes down to a tax increase.
"If we're going to fund the services we have, that's right," Tester said.
While Tester said he is unaware of any sales tax proposal currently before the legislature, he said that a properly structured sales tax is something he would seriously consider.
Any increase in taxes seems unlikely due to the Republican Gov. Judy Martz's pledge of "no new taxes."
Energy price increases are expected to hit Montana consumers in June, 2002, and could, according to some estimates, be as large as 250-300 percent. But Tester refuses to point fingers of blame, choosing instead just to make the observation that the energy problem might be great for him politically, "but it might break me personally."
Tester, a Big Sandy farmer, said that if his energy rates double, he will pay more in energy than he currently pays in property taxes.
"We're all in this thing together and now we have to figure a way out together," he said.
Education too will suffer as energy costs rise and in fact are already beginning to feel the pinch. But the money to properly fund education in either K-12 or higher education is just not there. And he questions whether all of his Republican opponents have the same commitment to funding education as his Democratic allies.
"There's a lot of people down there saying they would like to see education funded knowing full well it ain't going to happen," Tester said, while commenting that Rep. Merlin Wolery, R. Rudyard, is not one of the Republicans in this category. "I think it's easy to support education if you don't have any money to support it."
Tester said education funding will save about $30 million this year because of declining student population in K-12.
"And that's just about what we need to balance the budget," he said, referring to the $32 million shortfall between what the legislature has and what they know they will need for a biennium cushion of $50 million.
"To tell people you're giving a 3 percent increase when it's actually a decrease, that's junk," he said.