Partisan Tensions Flare at Midpoint of Montana Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Dormant partisan tensions flared up Wednesday in the House with a critical speech by the chamber’s Republican floor leader — bringing back memories of the harsh partisanship of two years ago.

Rep. Scott Mendenhall of Clancy used his final speech before the midway break to blast House Speaker Bob Bergren. The Republican said the Democrat is faltering on his promise to be a speaker for both parties.

The House is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, but Democrats were allowed to pick the speaker because their party controls the governor’s office. Bergren told the chamber back in January he would be a speaker for the whole House.

Mendenhall said that has been the case “for the most part.”

But he said Bergren upset Republicans by refusing to schedule, “in a blatant, brazen way,” an anti-union bill for a hearing before the midpoint when all general bills must pass their first chamber. He also pointed to some scheduling work that appeared to benefit Democrats.

“This has been patently unfair, patently partisan,” Mendenhall said. “Can we look forward to more of this type of thing in the second half?”

The first 45 days have been noticeably calm compared to the harsh partisan standoffs of 2007. But some of that changed Wednesday. Mendenhall later said he was sending a message that Republicans won’t be ignored.

Republicans burst out into applause following Mendenhall’s speech — before quickly getting shot down by Bergren from the podium.

“There will be no applause in this House,” Bergren said, referring to house decorum rules.

Bergren said that Mendenhall is choosing a new path for the remainder of the session, which resumes Monday after a short break.

“I think you just helped set the tone for the next 45 days,” Bergren said.

Bergren later said Mendenhall shouldn’t have used the stage traditionally granted each side’s leaders at the midpoint to argue over “inside baseball stuff.” The Democrat said Montanans want focus on job creation, health care and other issues.

“Republican leadership is again showing they are out of touch with Montana,” Bergren said in a news conference.

But Bergren said that despite the “flashback,” he doesn’t think things will get nearly as bad as in 2007 which resulted in a historic partisan stalemate.

Bergren said misinformation among conservatives who are unfairly blaming him for brief hearings on two resolutions on Monday has resulted in him receiving threats over the mail and by phone.

A Republican committee chairman stood up Wednesday to take the blame for the brief hearings. It seemed to smooth over one lingering partisan hiccup — before Mendenhall took the floor.

But Bergren said he is looking forward to working with Republicans on the biggest issues left pending — the state budget and spending of federal stimulus money.

Mendenhall told reporters he planned to meet with Bergren on Monday to sort things out, “and work on rebuilding trust.”

“I would like to think we could get past this partisanship and move on,” he said.

Republican Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican working with some Democrats to advance bills aimed at speeding permitting for development projects, bemoaned the partisan outbreak.

Jones said it was unfair of Bergren to not schedule the bill that bans mandatory union membership, even though it has already failed in the Senate and was introduced late. At the same time, Jones said Mendenhall didn’t need to inflame the chamber with a public speech against the speaker.

Jones said everyone loses if both sides start deadlocking on partisan votes because everyone is angry.

“We need to not slip down the path of partisanship,” Jones said.

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