Survey: Wages, Jobs and Taxes Biggest Issues Facing Montana

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — Democratic lawmakers are most likely to see low wages and a lack of jobs as two of the biggest issues facing the state, while Republicans are more likely to cite taxes as the problem, according to a survey of legislators.

The Associated Press asked lawmakers about the biggest issues facing the state as they get set to convene Monday. About half of the 2009 Legislature’s 150 members returned the anonymous survey.

Almost all Democrats said low wages were one of the biggest issues facing the state. Almost as many cited a lack of jobs or the wrong kind of jobs as a big issue.

Republicans most often cited high taxes, environmentalists and government overspending as the biggest problems facing the state. Popular answers for Republicans also included wages and jobs, as well as the news media and a lack of morality.

“Development of natural resources is our key to energy independence and good paying jobs,” wrote one Senate Republican who cited low wages as a big problem in the survey.

A Senate Republican who cited lack of jobs as one of the biggest issues had a different take.

“We need to train and educate our workers, focused on a two year college system,” the lawmaker wrote.

A Democrat in the House cited low wages and the wrong kind of jobs as the two biggest issues facing Montana.

“We need more diversity and small business development,” the lawmaker wrote.

There was a little partisan agreement on what the top two priorities should be for lawmakers this session.

Most Democrats said K-12 education and funding should be one of the priorities. About a third of Republicans agreed.

More Republicans, about half, thought permanent property tax relief should be one of the two biggest priorities. Almost as many said that cutting business taxes should remain a priority.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer has already reduced his proposed spending once because of a sharp downturn in revenue forecasts due to the recession. The governor has eschewed new programs in favor of limited increases for key government programs. He has also proposed setting aside large reserves.

Seventeen of 75 lawmakers surveyed said that saving money should be one of the top two priorities for the state.

Other issues:

— 30 of 34 Democrats said that school funding is not yet adequate, while only 14 of 39 Republicans said more is needed. School groups have argued unsuccessfully in court that the state has failed to spend enough on schools.

— Only 28 of 76 lawmakers responding to the survey thought the Legislature should do more to restrict abortions. Of the 28, all but one were Republican. And even one House Republican in favor of more restrictions said there are simply bigger issues with the economic woes facing the state.