By Ron VandenBoom
Education, energy, and the proposed four-lane highway project for U.S. Highway 2 topped the list of concerns expressed to area legislators during a rare televised edition of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce's weekly legislative conference call Tuesday.
The conference was at Triangle Telephone's new ITV (Interactive Television) facility west of Havre. The $40,000 facility, located in the recently completed addition to the Triangle Telephone's office complex, saw about 20 residents and local and county officials discuss current issues with the legislators in the conference.
One concerned the recent editorial that ran Monday in the Great Falls Tribune opposing Sen. Sam Kitzenberg's, R. Glasgow, bill that would allow for the conversion of U.S. Highway 2 into four-lanes.
Debbie Vandeberg, manager of the Havre Chamber, asked the legislators if they had read the editorial and what they thought of it.
Rep. John Musgrove, D. Havre, said he was offended by the cheap shots the Tribune made about the Hi-Line.
"It offended me highly that Great Falls can ask for all kinds of things ... and then they turn around and make disparaging remarks about how Malta's going to have a strip mall...," he said. "I think that there should be a letter writing campaign against that (editorial) and I think it should be bipartisan."
Vandeberg told Musgrove that every chamber along the Hi-Line has responded to the editorial by email.
All three legislators laughed when one questioner told them what Great Falls really wanted was a four-lane highway between Great Falls and Havre so more Hi-Line residents could go there to spend more money.
Another issue was HB-625, a proposal by Musgrove that would create a study commission on K-12 education funding.
"The Senate Education Committee struck everything after the "be it enacted" clause and created a new program," Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said.
The bill, Jergeson said, will now have to be reviewed by Gov. Judy Martz and OPI (Office of Public Instruction) before it will be referred to the Interim Committee on Education. The committee will then make recommendations for the 2003 session of the legislature.
"I just don't know how productive that will be," Jergeson said, adding that the bill had only been funded $10,000 each from the governor's budget and from the interim committee.
"I think it needs considerably more resources than that in order to be a valid study on school funding," Jergeson said.
Musgrove told the questioners that he no longer felt as though the bill was his.
"I feel 625 is really more the governor's bill now rather than mine," he said. "It's definitely going to go to conference committee or pre-conference committee because it really hasn't had a full hearing except for the hour they spent on the Senate floor today on it. So it's not done yet."
Musgrove said he hopes they strip criteria based testing out of the bill that had been added while in committee.
"That's an unfunded mandate," he said. "And I don't think it has any place in the study the way I understood we were going to do it."
Musgrove said he has been talking with several Republican supporters that agree with his position on the bill to see if they would join him in the conference committee that will review the altered proposal.
Jergeson, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, told to the crowd that they now believe this session of the legislature will complete the scheduled 90 days that it was speculated earlier would be cut short. The primary reasons are education funding and energy issues.
"I don't think we've addressed the problem at all," Tester said, referring to the energy issues. "I think there will be a lot of things passed but the truth of the matter is, I don't think there's anything in the docket that's going to do much come July 1, 2002."
That's the date when a negotiated price freeze will be lifted and 285,000 Montana consumers could see utility prices jump 200-300 percent.
Jergeson and Tester said that there are about a dozen bills floating around the capitol, but none that will cure the energy crises and protect consumers from increases.
Education is currently scheduled to receive only what Tester described as a 1.5 percent increase the first year of the biennium and another 1.5 percent increase the second year. Both Jergeson and Tester said that it will be the last day of the session before they would know for sure.