By Ron VandenBoom
Education, energy and economic development, or the three E's as they've become known, are proving to be the bane of existence for Montana's legislators this year, but to freshman legislator John Musgrove, D-Havre, you can't talk about any one E without talking about all three.
"And with that, we also have the environment," Musgrove said. "So we almost have the four E's."
Musgrove campaigned on the issue of education and as a retired teacher, it's not surprising that he sees education as the key to solving Montana's economic woes.
"Without an educated work force, we don't have very much to offer," he said.
But funding education at the level educators say is needed looks less and less likely as the second half of the session begins.
"What I'm hearing mostly right now is blame and excuses," he said, adding that we're almost in a desperation mode and not channeling our efforts into solving the problem. "We have to get beyond that and look to the future."
Musgrove sees only two realistic methods for solving funding problems cut programs or increase revenue.
"I would like to think that even those people who said they wouldn't raise taxes would come to the realization that taxes are necessary for the services provided."
No new tax plans have been proposed in the 57th Legislature partly because numerous Republicans, including Republican Gov. Judy Martz, have signed a "no new taxes" pledge. But Musgrove said he believe Martz has moderated her position slightly to allow neutral taxes where one tax is decreased to balance an increase in another.
That, he said, doesn't help our position unless she will take it one step farther and say, "unless it's absolutely necessary."
"Those people put themselves into a bind ..." Musgrove said. "They did not go into leadership being totally unencumbered. They have signed something that impedes their ability as leaders to find solutions."
He added that Martz may be put into a position where she will either have to break her pledge or break the state.
"And we're getting into a position where if we don't do something drastic, something much more drastic will happen," he said.
A worst case scenario, Musgrove said, would be that the state runs out of money during the second half of the biennium and we had to shut down essential services.
"We're well beyond (cutting) the fat stage in all categories," he said.
Only a study of a sales tax has so far been proposed by Rep. Daniel Fuchs, R. Billings.
Musgrove said he hasn't changed his position on a sales tax in that he believes it to be a very regressive tax, but he said he would consider it if it went for the schools.
Schools will just be one of the entities affected when energy prices shoot up an estimated 200-300 percent in June, 2002. The economic repercussions of such a jump could cause Montana to slide even farther into the economic doldrums and state revenues to decline even more.
"And there isn't anybody that has a handle on it that I've heard about," Musgrove said. "And it doesn't matter what philosophy they go by or what party they belong to."
Musgrove believes deregulation is the culprit that will bring higher prices and more misery in 2002, but whether or not there were alternatives and to what degree Montana will be hurt, he's unwilling to speculate.
"And those people in the majority are probably saying the same thing...," he said.
One suggestion Musgrove said he has heard is to let the co-ops expand their areas of service. The scenario, while unpopular with utility companies that stand to lose urban customers, might offer temporary relief, because prices for co-ops are capped until 2005.
Republican Sen. Royal Johnson of Billings has proposed SB-143, which would enter Montana into a long-term contract for electricity stabilizing prices for five years. But 60 pages of amendments that Musgrove said were added mostly by the utility companies has gutted the best qualities of the bill to a point where even Johnson is quoted as saying he is ashamed of it.
Rep. Paul Sliter, R. Somers, has also proposed HB-474 which would impose a transaction tax on wholesale electrical energy and use the money to provide low-income energy assistance.
Musgrove said he believes Montanans have an indomitable spirit that says, "we will survive this, and all this is going to do is temper us, not break us."