By Ron VandenBoom
Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, is looking forward to coming home and getting back to farming, a job where energy legislation and education funding bills take second place to the getting in the crop and hoping for rain.
Wolery said he's been told that this session of the Legislature was a little more partisan than most, an observation that as a freshman representative he is not in the best position to judge. As a member of the majority party, though, Wolery has come to realize that the minority party is freer to advocate and get more attention than his fellow Republicans.
"The other party can advocate anything they want and look good on TV doing it," he said. He added that he noticed it was not uncommon for the Democrats to wait until they saw TV cameras in the room before rising to give a speech.
He explained that Republicans have to be more careful with what they wish for, because they know they have the votes to get it. The minority party can advocate anything it wants, as loud as it wants, knowing full well it has no chance of passing just anything.
That's some of what, in an earlier interview, Wolery said he saw happening over the issue of education Democrats supporting increases they knew the budget could not fund and they knew would never pass.
Wolery said he thinks education funding ended up about where he thought it would this session, but he was hoping for just a little bit more. Several weeks ago, Wolery said he expected 2.5 percent for the first year and as much as 4.5 percent for the second or a total increase of 7 percent.
HB-121, the bill that will fund education this biennium, increased K-12 funding by about $31 million, or by 1.88 percent for each of the next two years.
HB-121 originally asked for a 0 percent increase for the first year of the biennium with a 3 percent increase for the second year. The total increase for the period is only about .7 percent above the original figure.
"We should have done it a little earlier on in the session," Wolery said. Considering the end result, her said, there was no reason to have dragged the funding issue out for so long.
Wolery is spending the last week of the session waiting for the results of numerous conference committees and the free committees that are primarily working on energy bills and the complex county reimbursement package, HB-124, more commonly known as the "Big Bill."
Free committees, unlike conference or regular committees, have the power to throw out amendments, add amendments, and completely reword language in a bill.
"I don't expect HB-124 to be changed too much," Wolery said. "The House makes up half the (free) committee and they don't want to change it much."
HB-124 will allow the Department of Revenue to collect all county produced revenues. It uses a complex formula based on what counties are currently receiving to distribute funds back to the counties.
Wolery said HB-632, also known as the Energy Re-regulation Bill, will come out of the free committees changed, but what form it may take is anybody's guess.
HB-632 gives the Public Service Commission the authority to once again regulate energy prices a right that was taken away with the passage of deregulation two years ago.
Wolery said that no matter what energy legislation comes out of the Legislature this session, it is sure to be challenged in the courts.
"(HB)-134 is certainly a lawyers' paradise," he said.
Wolery said capping energy company profits also is sending the wrong message to businesses that might be interested in coming to Montana. He said that they might see us as an anti-business state because of the taxation.
Wolery said Gov. Judy Martz is taking a hand in the free committees currently sorting through the various pieces of energy legislation.
"And that's how it should be," he said.
While Wolery acknowledges that no perfect solution to Montana's energy dilemma exists, he is confident things will not be as bad as others are predicting.
"I still don't think consumers are going to be hit with more than double what they are paying now," Wolery said. He added that he realizes his double figure is still high, but that he doesn't believe increases will reach 200-300 percent.