By Ron VandenBoom
There have been rumors circulating that the 57th Legislature might be adjourned about a week early so legislators can come back later to solve the problems of sky-rocketing energy prices and funding shortfalls for Montana's schools.
But to Havre area Sens. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, and Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, it's all part of the frustration they feel typifies this legislative session.
"If they haven't found a road map to solve the knotty issues while we're here, I'm not sure that they'll find a road map when they bring us into a special session," Jergeson said Tuesday during an interview on the Senate floor. "If there is a special session, I do not believe it will be a quick one and the issues will be just as knotty."
Tester agrees adding that he too has been extremely frustrated this session.
"... I just haven't seen us move on issues that are important to move on," Tester said.
An example in recent days has been a variety of education funding measures that were raised to the top of the flagpole only to be pulled back down before anyone has a chance to salute them. It's a pattern Jergeson said he believes will be seen for the rest of the session.
"It all depends on the mood of legislators and how far they think they might be sticking their necks out," Jergeson said.
One such plan recently hoisted up the flag pole sought to funnel money into education through a voter approved increase in cigarette taxes. It was a plan that neither Jergeson or Tester really favored believing instead that it was the responsibility of the legislature to decide such issues.
"That kind of thing we need to decide, up or down, do we want to have it or don't we," Tester said, adding that the cost of placing the issue on a ballot would be $1.2 million and in the overall scheme of things, it is a relatively minor tax that would normally be decided in the legislature.
"We're not doing the job we were sent here to do," he said, adding that part of the reason a referendum was being considered is because of the "no new taxes" pledge signed by Republican Gov. Judy Martz.
"But this state is in dire need of leadership right now and if it doesn't want to come from the governor's office then it needs to come from this body or from the house," Tester said. "But it needs to come from somewhere."
Jergeson objects to the tying of tobacco sales to education on moral ground believing that tobacco taxes should be used for health care.
"That would then relieve the general fund to help pay for education," he said.
Both lawmakers agree that a 3 percent hike in funding for each of the two years of the biennium is about the best Montana's schools can expect to see from the legislature.
Tester expressed surprise that similar funding difficulties didn't seem to affect the Department of Corrections.
Referring to the "opportunity scholarship" plan killed Wednesday in the Senate, Jergeson noted that nobody is suggesting a state wide levy, or a levy in counties where prisons are located.
"This isn't funding higher education," Tester said.
Jergeson explained that communities where colleges are located would have had to increase their mill levy to pay for the cost of the scholarships a plan that would not be likely to pass in Hill County where it could mean a 10 - 20 mill increase.
"It would just wipe those colleges out," Jergeson said. "Students would go to other schools that did offer the scholarship."