Update: State House Power Struggle Underway

By Beacon Staff

UPDATE: Republicans today sent out a news release with more party leadership criticizing Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren of Havre for what they call an “unprecedented power grab.” State GOP Chairman Erik Iverson, former gubernatorial candidate Roy Brown, and former Republican leader Bob Marks of Clancy weigh in:

“Montana voters elected 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats to the House of Representatives. Folks expect legislators to share leadership and conduct the people’s business diplomatically and cooperatively as done in past split sessions,” GOP Chairman Erik Iverson said. “Speaker-elect Bergren’s unprecedented power grab sets a hostile, highly partisan tone for the upcoming session. I’m still hopeful that cooler heads will prevail and that fair-minded Democrat Party leaders will step in and stop this plan.”

Addressing the precedent set by the 1985 and 2005 legislatures, 2005 Republican Leader Roy Brown said, “During the last split session I served as Republican Leader, and there truly was a cooperative effort by both parties to craft legislation that Republicans and Democrats approved of. We carried out the voters’ mandate by sharing, equally and diplomatically, leadership, decision-making and authority. The House operated very smoothly with this mutual respect and understanding and I believe that’s what voters expected this time around, too.”

Democratic Governor’s were in office during the 1985 and 2005 split sessions, giving the Democrats the Speaker of the House both times, and setting the precedent of shared authority and oversight.

“Voting along party lines will result in a stalemate every time with a 50-50 split. That’s why, when I served as Republican leader during the 1985 session, we split power and shared responsibility in creating committees and appointing staff. It was the fair and right way to do it, and we knew it would take bi-partisan efforts to get any piece of legislation passed,” explained former House Republican Leader Bob Marks, (R) Clancy.

Original Blog: Well that didn’t take long. With over a month before the 2009 Legislature begins, House leaders are engaged in their very first power struggle. Lee’s Mike Dennison reported this morning that Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren, presiding over a chamber split 50-50 between the parties, plans to exercise sole authority over designating committee chairs and committee assignments for the upcoming session, as if Democrats had a majority. When Dennison asked Bergren why Republicans should just go along with rules designed for a speaker with majority control over the House, it’s safe to say Bergren’s reply was not exactly reassuring for the GOP: “I guess they’ll have to trust me. I look forward to working with these folks.”

Democrats can elect a House speaker because during a 50-50 split leadership goes to the party of the governor. But in previous split sessions, like 2005 and 1985, the parties worked out a power-sharing agreement to divide up which party chairs which committee. Why is this important? Because committee chairs control which bills receive a hearing, and have a great deal of control over whether that bill progresses out of committee to floor votes. So if a Democrat or Republican chairing a committee strongly objects to a bill proposed by a member of the opposite party, that chairman or chairwoman can opt to not even schedule the bill for a committee hearing. This is why Democrats were in such an uproar when Republicans chose Ronan Constitution Party member Rick Jore to chair the House Education committee in 2007, someone who questions the very existence of the Department of Education, and whose chief intent was to work hard to slash funding for public education wherever possible. Many Democrats said important education legislation died while Jore chaired education, not because the bills came up for debate and vote and failed, but because those bills never even made it that far, and died in legislative limbo.

Republican Floor Leader Scott Mendenhall of Clancy implied Bergren was going back on an agreement made earlier to share power in the 2009 House, telling Dennison: “Under a tied house, there has never been a speaker-elect who has tried to exert this much power,” Mendenhall said. “My hope is that he will, for the sake of starting this thing off on an even, fair keel, reconsider and have fair rules. I think it cheats the voters of Montana to do otherwise.”

And just this evening, former 2007 House Speaker Scott Sales, Republican of Bozeman, released a statement warning that Bergren’s action risks throwing civility out the window for the 2009 session already, and hopes he will reconsider:

“Montana has a distinguished tradition. When the House is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, committee appointments are also made evenly. It’s a tradition of respect for the voice of the people; since they voted for us to share power evenly, we should do so. Part of being a conservative is to preserve the best of our traditional values, and this is one of those times.

“In past sessions, established process has been very important to the Democrats too. Changing that idea now doesn’t seem consistent.

“Stacking the deck for partisan advantage is not what the people voted for. We ought to be working together to produce results.

“If we start now, we can set a tone of civil debate for the rest of the session. If Representative Bergren is willing, I hope we can discuss the situation further before he makes a final decision.”

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