Legislature at halftime: Much left to do
At the halfway point in the legislative session, it's important to look back to see what we have accomplished and determine what we have left to do to move Montana forward. The first half of the legislative session was about lost opportunities, and the second half of the session is going to be about leadership.
Put simply, we have not accomplished much, but not for lack of trying. We still have a lot to do.
We Democrats pledged from the beginning of the session to work together with our colleagues and the Martz administration to:
Boost Montana's economy and create jobs.
Invest in quality schools for our children and in education that families can afford.
Provide access to quality, affordable health care for all Montanans.
And balance the state's budget and put our finances in order.
These are the key issues facing us this session. And we're searching for long-term solutions to do what's right for Montana.
While we've reached out to work together with our colleagues, we've seen little leadership from the majority. We've seen few if any majority plans that provide long-term solutions to create jobs while balancing the budget. We've heard our colleagues say that education is key to boosting our economy, but only have seen proposals from Republicans to cut education funding and shift the tax burden to local property taxpayers.
While that's disappointing, we Democrats have not given up hope. We still hold out hope that we can work together with our Republican colleagues and the Martz administration to do a better job in the second half of the legislative session.
Indeed, we've begun talking to our colleagues in summit meetings. We're identifying spending cuts to state government and finding ways to balance our budget. We expect these summit meetings to be productive in the second half.
The bottom line is that we must craft a plan that can gain the necessary votes from both Republicans and Democrats so when we're done we know we have developed a truly Montana solution to the problems we all face.
How we set our priorities tells us who we are as a people. We believe Montanans share the values of hard work, family, faith, community, and helping senior citizens, children, and their neighbors. That's the Montana way.
But in the first 45 days of the session, we've heard some upsetting stories, which suggest to us that we're turning our backs on those who need help the most and refusing to invest in long-term strategies that will help our state.
Take, for instance, the stories that note:
The Legislature has continued to cut state funding to education and shifted the property tax burden to homeowners, small businesses and seniors, making it more difficult to fund our schools and allow families to afford a higher education for their kids.
Senior citizens are skipping meals to save money for their prescription drugs or cutting their dosages to make their expensive drugs last longer.
Community organizations won't be able to offer services that allow disabled Montanans to live independently or with their families, and work in productive jobs.
Child-care assistance, which helps needy families find meaningful work, could be severely cut.
Our mental health care infrastructure is crumbling around us as mental health-care providers who help children leave the state.
Lack of adequate funding to meet the basic needs of Montanans puts our most vulnerable at risk of losing their life, their dignity, or their independence.
Working together with vision and crafting long-term solutions for all Montanans will help turn around our state's economy and create good-paying jobs; boost investment in our kids' education so they can live and raise their families in Montana (education is key to building a stronger economy); provide affordable, quality health care to all Montanans; and provide an equitable tax system that is fair to all residents.
We pledge to continue talking to and working with our Republican colleagues and the governor to make Montana an even better place to live, work and raise a family.
If we're going to get anything done for the long-term future of our state, we're going to have to work together and use common sense to do it. That's the Montana way.
Tester is a Democratic senator from Big Sandy. Wanzenried is a Democratic representative from Missoula.