Lawmakers face some heat at public forum


Heated discussion and commentary marked a legislative forum in Havre Monday night.

Most of the heat came from the audience, not the legislators.

"You're in the process of turning me into a single-issue voter," Clarence Wohlwend said. "This issue of messing with voter initiatives is simply outrageous."

The forum, sponsored by the Havre Daily News at the request of Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, drew about 50 people to the Student Union Building at Montana State University-Northern.

Tester was joined by Rep. John Witt, R-Carter; Sen. Ken "Kim" Hansen, D-Harlem; Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre; Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre; and Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy, at the forum.

The forum was during a break in the legislative session during which all bills are transmitted from the Senate to the House and vice versa. The session reconvenes Wednesday.

Windy Boy said in his opening remarks that he at first had supported a bill to reverse the initiative that prohibits fee shooting on game farms. After talking to elders on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, he said, he realized that if the people of Montana pass an initiative, it's probably what they want. He decided not to support overturning initiatives at that point, he said.

Havre resident Kyle Austin spoke against that idea. The people who supported I-143, the game farm initiative, lied to the voting public, he said, and the initiative only passed by a small majority. It is the job of the Legislature to correct the error made by the public when it is misinformed, he said.

Wohlwend said he's not talking about game farms or any other specific initiative. There are eight bills proposed to change or overturn initiatives, and he said that is what he opposes - "an elite aristocracy telling us we're a bunch of idiots."

Austin said the focus of the Legislature might be in the wrong area. Instead of trying to find ways to fund education and raise taxes, the government should be trying to find ways to attract businesses and use that tax base to balance the budget, he said.

Musgrove said there are a number of bills proposed to stimulate economic development and increase industry in the state. That is a goal of the Legislature, because that is the primary way to increase the number of jobs and income, he said.

Tester said his focus on economic development might not be the same as Austin's. In the last few legislative sessions, taxes on industry have been cut to the tune of $475 million, he said. Most of the cuts went to 17 large businesses, and those cuts didn't translate into new jobs or economic stimulation, he added.

His focus is on stimulating small-business development, Tester said.

"Big business doesn't want to do business in the United States," he added.

Any business that gets benefits from the state should pay for them, just like anybody else, he said.

"There has to be a balance," Tester said.

Havre resident Rick Stevens asked if the Legislature is seriously looking at implementing a sales tax.

Witt said several bills creating sales taxes have been proposed.

"I do believe when we get back to Helena after the break we will start discussing those more," he said.

Witt said he would support a sales tax. That revenue could add $50 million to the general fund, he said.

Tester said he doubts a workable sales tax could be passed in the last 45 days of the session. There are many problems to deal with, like what should or shouldn't be exempted from such a tax, he said.

The people of Montana have shown their opposition to a sales tax in the past, he said. Sales taxes have been voted down by a 2-to-1 margin twice before.

Windy Boy said he will vote against a sales tax until an initiative tells him the voters support it.

Hansen said he might consider a sales tax as a last resort, but he has many reservations. He listed the concerns of a woman who moved to Montana from Washington, where a sales tax implemented at 2 percent has grown to 8 percent, he said.

The proponents of a sales tax seem to be ignoring the past votes against it by Montana citizens, he added.

"I don't know what part of 'no' they don't understand," he said.

Other options to balance the budget were discussed at the forum. Witt said if the Legislature had to behave the same way a family does when it overspends its budget, the process would be simple.

Programs would be cut to match the money available and the session would be over, he said.

Witt said rolling back base budgets to the 2000 level put spending levels close to the revenue available. The Legislature is since restored $60 million.

Adding another $60 million or so would reach the level proposed by Gov. Judy Martz. The Legislature would need to add about $30 million more to reach the 2003 level, he added.

"You know, folks, I don't think that's going to happen," he said.

Witt said he supports using the coal tax trust fund to balance the budget. There is a large amount of principal in the fund, about $665 million, and the state has huge reserves of coal, he said.

"I think it's high time we started using that money," he said.

Bergren said that when the House bill proposing tapping the fund came to the floor last Tuesday, the debate was very short. The bill, which needed 75 votes to pass, failed 55-45.

Hansen said he thinks revenue to fund programs like education and social services can be found, but he opposes using the coal tax fund.

"I don't see it as a rainy-day fund," he said.

Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller asked what the progress is on education funding, and what he can expect for funding. The Havre school district has one deadline at the end of this month to plan its budget and what levies will be needed, and another the beginning of April for the school board to present the actual dollar amount of levies, he said.

Bergren said he's disappointed at the lack of discussion about education funding so far. There are some key bills proposed that could help education, he said.

"I'm very disappointed at this point that these discussions haven't been brought up further," Bergren said. "I don't have a good answer for you, I really don't."

Musgrove told Miller that the process is moving forward, and that he is confident that by the deadlines that "enough will be put in place that you won't be left hanging."

Witt said the problem is finding the money to fund education. Either taxes will have to be raised, or the government will "have to steal from another agency," he said.

The basic problem is the state's formula to fund education, he said, which has caused problems funding schools adequately since enrollment started declining in many parts of the state. The formula needs revision, and there are bills proposed this session to do that and to help other areas, he said.

"We're putting a lot of patches on education to date, and that's wrong," he said.

Tester said the state still needs to provide the funding.

"Any formula we have, if no money goes into it, results in higher property taxes," he said. "Education needs to be funded so boards don't have to go to voters to increase revenue to keep programs at the same level."

Havre school board member Kathie Newell said she wanted some reassurances that the debates in the Legislature are not just a partisan "volleyball game."

The Legislature's actions in recent years have caused increased property taxes on the local level and increased tuition at the state's universities, she said. Her sons have had to go to college out of state because they couldn't get enough scholarships and financial aid to go in state, she said.

"Not only are we increasing fees but we're chasing off our kids and they're not coming back," she said.

After the forum, Tester said he hopes constituents keep contacting him and the other legislators, whether by phone, mail or e-mail. The communication is crucial, whether it's suggestions, compliments or complaints, he said.

"We can't operate in a vacuum," Tester said.


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