Learning the Ropes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – At a recent legislative hearing on a bill to reduce the state’s business equipment tax, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish, some Taxation Committee members expressed concern over the bill’s cost to the state, which wasn’t clear from its language. Zinke, a freshman Republican, asked the lawmakers to trust that the price tag would become more apparent further along in the budgeting process, and then related an anecdote from his previous career as a Navy SEAL commander.

“To use the term leap of faith, I have jumped from aircraft at 35,000 feet, at night, with oxygen, understanding that my parachute would open,” he said. “And I am sure as we go through this process and negotiate it will come to a conclusion that is favorable to businesses.”

On the same morning at the opposite corner of the capitol, Rep. Cheryl Steenson, D-Kalispell, was sitting on a legislative education panel that had become bogged down in its attempt to agree on an adequate funding level for tribal and community colleges. Like Zinke, she referenced her personal experience to make a point.

“My life has been spent and is now dedicated to educating, and as the first four-year college graduate in my family, who went to a community college, I have an unashamed bias toward the fact that those schools must be our most accessible in the state, and I know that we are leaving items on the table that it personally pains me to leave,” Steenson, also a freshman, said. “As an educator, as someone who is teaching in the public school system, I struggle with the decisions we are making today.”

While Steenson and Zinke aren’t the only new lawmakers representing the Flathead in Helena, they are the only two freshmen who managed to win in districts previously held by the opposite party. (Hungry Horse Republican Dee Brown, who flipped House District 3, previously served.) And in keeping with the moderate platforms upon which they ran, Steenson and Zinke have often voted against the majority of their party, particularly on issues key to Northwest Montana. The result has been that both lawmakers, while learning the ropes of the Legislature, are already taking on a high profile in Helena, and raising significant awareness to the needs of the Flathead at a time when the area is among those hardest hit by the recession.

They have done so by not always marching in lockstep with their parties. Last weekend, Zinke was the sole Republican to oppose a bill restricting citizen-appeals of state-approved energy development projects, a key piece of legislation for the GOP in the current session, though it still passed the Republican-controlled Senate, 27-23. Zinke was also among the handful of Republicans who voted to abolish the death penalty in Montana, and went against most in his party in supporting a bill to make failing to wear a seatbelt a primary offense.

For her part, Steenson has voted in favor of all gun rights legislation, often against the majority of her party, and even supported House Bill 228, a controversial so-called “Castle Doctrine” bill which asserts Montanans can use deadly force in the face of a threat to defend themselves anywhere, either inside or outside the home.

Nor are Zinke or Steenson timid about the legislation they are bringing forward as freshman lawmakers. If Zinke successfully passes a large business equipment tax reduction – his bill would change the current $25,000-threshold to a $200,000-exemption – he will have pulled off a reform that has long stymied more experienced Republicans in previous sessions. Seeing his bill through requires that Zinke work closely with the administration of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer to coordinate the business tax cut with other budget priorities.

Though new to the Montana Legislature, Zinke said he draws on his long military career for experience operating within a bureaucracy toward a goal, particularly from non-combat-related missions, like humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

“I’ve worked with countries, I’ve worked with tribes, I’ve worked with governments and it hasn’t always been during conflict,” Zinke said. “What’s helped here is that I am a solution-orientated person.”

On a table in his office beneath a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, Zinke has 12 large combat knives laid out, eight of which were issued to him during his 23 years as a Navy SEAL. The progression of the knives, for him, provides some insight into how government functions. The first knife is spare, simple and black, but subsequent knives evolve into a bulky, heavy, bright silver blade that doubles as a grappling hook. He hates this knife. It’s an example, he said, of what happens when too many people get involved in something: The knife becomes unwieldy, and by trying to serve too many functions, ceases to be useful for anything. Public policy is sometimes the same way.

Zinke’s chief focus in this session has been on small businesses and job preservation. He has surprised himself by becoming an expert on the state’s worker compensation regulation, crafting a bill that allows lowered premiums for employers that implement a workplace safety program. It passed the Senate without a single vote of opposition.

“In this current economic downturn the Flathead Valley’s lost 1,200 jobs,” Zinke said. “And so we need to do everything we can to ensure that the businesses that are there stay in business and get people back on payroll.”

Steenson, in addition to education, has also focused heavily on job creation. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., singled Steenson out for applause during his Feb. 18 address to the Legislature after she successfully co-sponsored a joint resolution urging the federal government to swiftly pass economic stimulus. In language unusual for legislation, the bill specifically references recent layoffs by some of the area’s biggest employers, including Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., Plum Creek and Semitool.

“That came about because of the job losses in the Flathead,” Steenson said. “When it started to become really important and critical to me that the Legislature needed to at least take a stance and have a voice on (the stimulus) was when we kind of reached some critical levels and I started realizing these were parents of my students, these are people I know, people that live in my district.”

Steenson was also appointed to sit on the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees all state spending – an unusually powerful position for a freshman lawmaker. While Steenson is carrying less legislation than Zinke, she has focused on leveraging her seat on Appropriations and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education toward trying to keep tuition down at community colleges, tribal colleges and colleges of technology.

“They’re where people returning to school go, they’re where people who are laid off and are getting retraining go, and they’re also where students who don’t necessarily have the ability to go to four-year schools right away go,” she said. “FVCC alone makes up one quarter of the growth in all of our university system; if you add up all the two year schools, the COTs and community colleges, it’s three-quarters of the growth, and so to me it seems like a critical place that we have to make sure there aren’t tuition increases.”

While she won’t know whether community colleges will receive funding at the level she has requested until further along in the budgeting process, Steenson said she is confident there will be some increase for two-year schools, and for that she’s willing to settle. Similarly, Zinke does not yet know whether he’ll be able to achieve the $200,000 business exemption tax he’s seeking, or whether he’ll have to lower that number in order to gain the support of the governor.

But both Zinke and Steenson have proven, in the 2009 Legislature’s first half, an aptitude for introducing the change they seek and promoting the policies they support. The session’s second half will test their ability to see those changes through to completion.

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