Analysis: No Sure Things in 2009 Montana Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Nothing was a sure thing in the 2009 Legislature — not even the main budget itself — as Republicans and Democrats held together a tense truce to get the job done. Now the blame game begins.

After the dust settled, lawmakers did agree on a spending plan on the 90th and final day. It also took weeks of negotiations to agree that voters were right when they approved, by more than a two-to-one margin, a big expansion in the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But dozens of ideas failed amid the sharp partisan split. Democrats had organizational control of a 50-50 house and Republicans, holding the Senate 27-23, did all they could to offset the power of a Democratic governor.

One surprise of the session was the advance of a plan to ban the death penalty in the state. With a mix of support it cleared the GOP Senate only to see Republicans in the House line up against it.

Many pieces of big legislation, from the left and the right, were killed in 2009.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer was not exempt. His State of the State speech support for an oil tax increase to pay for schools wasn’t enough to give that idea any traction.

Republicans tried, again, to advance limitations on abortion. There was a lot of noise, but not much in the way of success. Some Democrats took a run at social issues of their own, only to see such bills as one aiming to protect gays from hate crimes fail amid the tight partisan split.

The much ballyhooed, two-year long study of proposals for Montana to deal with climate change went nowhere. Same with a GOP effort to undo parts of the voter-approved minimum wage increases.

Through it all, though, lawmakers remained largely civil on both sides — aiming to put the bitter partisan rancor of 2007 behind them.

But it took all of the savvy and negotiation skills that Republican Senate President Bob Story and Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren could muster to keep things intact.

In January, lawmakers convened with everyone looking for a way to avoid the meltdown of 2007 when a leading lawmaker cussed out the governor; and budget negotiations that were tied up in a bitter partisan feud melted down altogether. The Legislature adjourned without passing a budget and the governor called them back for a special session to get the job done.

As recently as last week, that seemed like another possibility when Story drafted his own petition for a special session. Tensions were increasing, although principled ideological stands had replaced the rancor of two years ago as the reason.

But lawmakers held it together to do what it took to shake hands on a budget deal that gave Democrats full expansion of CHIP as stated by I-155 and gave Republicans less spending than Democrats originally sought. They also approved spending of $880 million in federal stimulus money.

Now the blame game begins.

Democrats are continuing to hammer Republicans for trying to dismantle I-155, and for taking money from Democratic plans for higher education. They will certainly blame any tuition increases on the GOP, and bemoan other cuts that came out of the Republican Senate.

“Our efforts here were blocked by the other side. We weren’t able to move these important issues,” Senate Democratic Leader Carol Williams said at a session-ending press conference.

Democrats appeared to be launching their 2010 election-year campaign issues with a banner: Jobs, Kids, Health Care.

Oddly, Gov. Brian Schweitzer used his press conference to say Republicans were to blame for overspending. He was possibly launching a theme he could repeat as he vetoes bills, and perhaps uses his line-item veto power to take GOP and other initiatives out of the budget.

Schweitzer said Republicans went on a “spending spree.”

Observers had a hard time understanding the math since the Senate GOP budget plan was below the governor’s original plan and less than the House Democratic budget the Republicans cut from. But the governor has proven very effective at using the bully pulpit to make a message stick.

Story was not amused.

He said the governor’s office used last-minute negotiations to push for more money in the executive branch. Story said Republicans were clearly the ones trying to reduce overall spending.

Now that the session is over and negotiations are done even Story, known as a diplomat, is taking the gloves off.

“The governor is a person who makes statements and gets a lot of press and sound bites, but don’t have a lot of substance behind them,” Story said. “He either was stating something that wasn’t true or he doesn’t understand the budget.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.