In Defense of the Legislature

By Beacon Staff

I’m going to ask you to do something many readers may find unpleasant. Imagine, for a moment, you are an elected official in the Montana State Legislature. You’ve got an American flag tie or a pastel-colored pantsuit, and a paperweight of a donkey or an elephant on your desk. You spend every few years campaigning to represent your community in Helena as a senator or representative.

You’ve just spent nearly five months there, duking it out in one of the nastiest sessions in state history. If you hear one more reporter describe the Legislature as “contentious,” you’re going to croak. Only now are you beginning to gain a bit of perspective on how things shook out there.

I ask you to put yourself in a legislator’s shoes, because I can only imagine how confusing it must have been for them last week to read the latest Lee Newspapers poll, which measured the public’s opinion of the 2007 Montana Legislature.

According to the poll, 55 percent of voters said Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s $400 property tax rebate was “sufficient,” and 63 percent of voters approved of the Legislature’s spending about three-fourths of the projected billion-dollar surplus on public schools, prisons, state colleges, public health and human services programs, and construction projects to improve state infrastructure.

Amazingly, of those polled who consider themselves Republicans, more approved of the $400 rebate than disapproved by a slim margin – even though the central goal of Republican legislators was to achieve a property tax reduction, not a rebate.

And yet, despite the approval of the Legislature’s actions, 73 percent of voters handed the 2007 session a negative job approval rating. Not a single person polled believed the Legislature deserved a score of “excellent,” and only 21 percent gave it a “very good” grade (with 6 percent undecided).

What an amusing brainteaser we’ve presented to our elected officials. If you’re a legislator trying to interpret these numbers, what conclusion should you draw? That voters like what you did but they don’t like you? That voters think you did a bad job but are pleased with the results of that job? Huh? It’s like telling a chef that you enjoyed the meal he prepared but disliked the expression on his face while he chopped vegetables for it.

Then again, it’s not so hard to interpret these poll results. Most voters feel the Legislature did the right thing, but wish they didn’t have to act so darn … contentious in the process.

The poll results seem to ask, “Couldn’t lawmakers have been a little nicer, or at least, more civil?” The short answer: No, not this time around. Whether you elected a Republican or Democrat, they were fighting, tooth and nail, on the major policy initiatives and many smaller ones. The statehouse was no place for “nice” when it came down to the big issues. Did swollen ego-based political posturing run rampant? You betcha.

Unfortunately, without these unsightly byproducts of the legislative process, a majority of voters might not be pleased with the results, as they appear to be in this poll. If you’re a lawmaker, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Play political hardball and you risk looking like a thug in the news while achieving what you think is best for your constituents, or be nice and get tossed aside by the boys and girls who play rough.

So, with the 2008 elections approaching, how should candidates react to this poll? Luckily, I’m not among the 150 legislators and you probably aren’t either, hence it’s not our problem. We voters get to sit back, watch the political fireworks and hand down judgment of our respective elected officials, whether the feedback we provide is confusing or not.

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