Lawmakers Aim to Avoid Gridlock in 2009

By Beacon Staff

The aftermath of Election Day in Montana allowed both Democrats and Republicans to claim victories. Nationally, Democrats won a historic presidential election and strengthened majorities in Congress. With Gov. Brian Schweitzer sailing to a second term, Montana Democrats swept every statewide race, laying claim to all five seats on the powerful Land Board, which controls oil and gas leases and logging on state land.

Republicans, meanwhile, picked up a 27-23 majority in the state Senate, re-elected U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg decisively and delivered Montana for John McCain despite an unprecedented effort in the state by Barack Obama. The state House was split between the parties, with a 50-50 tie.

Here in the Flathead, the political landscape altered slightly, with Republicans winning the county commission race in a landslide and emerging victorious in most of the legislative contests throughout the valley. Democrats narrowly picked up Kalispell’s House District 8 seat with newcomer Cheryl Steenson’s victory, but lost control of Columbia Falls’ House District 3 in an open race that went to Republican Dee Brown.

One of the most closely watched elections in the state, Senate District 2, also turned from blue to red, with Republican Ryan Zinke defeating Brittany MacLean in an open race. The seat was previously held by Democrat Dan Weinberg, and the flip reinforces the GOP’s senate majority. Whitefish Democratic Rep. Mike Jopek hung onto his House District 4 seat to serve a third term.

But with the dust settling from what seemed an interminable campaign season, elected officials must now turn to the task of governing. The gavel will fall on the 61st legislative session in less than two months and both parties are convening this week in Helena to select leaders and committee chairmen. As lawmakers arrive at the statehouse, they will no doubt be reminded of the infamous 2007 session, which descended, over the course of its 90 days, to such bitter, debilitating partisanship that lawmakers were unable to hammer out a budget.

That session saw House Republicans, with a razor-thin majority, break the proposed state budget bill into eight separate pieces of legislation, miring budget negotiations in a series of strict party-line votes as outraged Democrats objected to a legislative process they saw as being hijacked. The tone of the 2007 session was exemplified when then-House Majority leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, made headlines by unleashing a profanity-laced tirade against Schweitzer in a GOP caucus meeting while the TV cameras rolled.

Though less overtly confrontational, the Democratic-controlled Senate was just as unwilling to reach any type of budget compromise with Republicans. Nor did Schweitzer play much of a role – during the regular session – in easing the partisan standoff.

By the session’s closing days, the multiple budget bills lay stalled in the House after being amended by the Senate. House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, refused to allow a vote on them until Schweitzer and the Democrats first agreed to pass the Republican plan for permanent property tax relief. Then, on the morning of the session’s last day, the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Bozeman Republican Rep. John Sinrud, resurrected the original budget bill and proceeded to strip from it funding for programs like full-time kindergarten and added resources for the Department of Revenue, ramming the changes through on party-line votes while Democrats protested.

During a brief recess, an irritated Republican Sen. John Cobb of Augusta lashed out at House Republican leadership, calling them “a couple of thugs,” and “spoiled little children.”

A few moments later, the Senate put the session out of its misery, and adjourned without a budget. Schweitzer eventually convinced a handful of moderate Republican representatives to sign off on his budget in a secret meeting, then promptly called a special session to pass a budget where Democrats managed to get most of what they wanted. The bitterness, especially in the House, lingered.

But political memories are notoriously short, and polarizing House Republicans like Sinrud and Lange will not be returning for the 2009 session. At this early stage, Flathead Republicans and Democrats indicate they would like to once more regain a sense of civility in Helena, and are optimistic about this session. Republicans now control the upper-chamber of the Legislature, and Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, is interested in becoming majority leader after serving as minority whip in the 2007 session. He believes Schweitzer and lawmakers of both parties are skeptical that a projected billion-dollar budget surplus will fully materialize, given the recession into which the U.S. economy seems poised to descend.

“I’m somewhat happy with what I’m hearing so far from the governor indicating that he wants to hold the line on spending,” Barkus said. “Given the state of the economy, and the future of the economy, I think we better put some kind of a stop on the spending and introduction of new programs.”

Barkus said the Republican Senate will also focus on solving the education-funding dilemma and on energy development, noting Montana’s vast coal reserves and statements by President-elect Obama indicating somewhat tepid support for coal-generated energy.

“We’re going to try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and foreign energy sources,” Barkus added. “One of the big issues is going to be reducing the barriers to coal development.”

While the Senate tends to be the more sedate chamber, the House is where the politics get rough. But Jopek, returning to the Legislature for his third session, said a 50-50 split in the House actually forces lawmakers to compromise and hammer out good legislation in committees before the bills come up for votes on the floor. With neither party holding a majority, it’s the only way anything will pass.

Because the leader in a tied legislative House goes to the party of the governor, Democrats will select a speaker and have more sway over the rules and committee make-ups of the chamber.

Jopek said a 51-49 majority, like the makeup of the 2007 session, is the worst scenario, because every decision rests on one vote, while a 50-50 composition fosters more productivity.

“It’s actually not a bad atmosphere, it’s really quite decent,” Jopek said. “There’s more discussion at the committee level – we actually have to cooperate.”

The 2005 session had a 50-50 split in the House, and Jopek looks back on it fondly.

“If I had to choose between ‘05 and ’07 as a session that I’m proud of, it was really a lot better in ’05,” he said, adding that split sessions tend to hand power to the moderates in both parties, which must form a majority across the aisle to move any legislation through.

Like the Republicans, Jopek anticipates the upcoming Legislature will be a “belt-tightening session,” and lawmakers’ main focus will be to guide Montana through a bleak national economic outlook.

“The economy is No. 1 on people’s minds; I think it’s going to overshadow everything and rightfully so,” Jopek said. “We should be very conservative with our fiscal matters.”

Jopek is confident everyone wants to strike a productive tone in the next session, and he praised Republicans likely to be leading the Senate.

“They’re good guys,” Jopek added. “I don’t think the ‘07 session gets repeated in ’09.”

Whether Jopek’s prediction proves true won’t be clear until the gavel falls in January.