HELENA – An ambitious list of priorities for new House Republican leaders is topped by a plan to boost the natural resource industry by limiting lawsuits filed against development projects, along with plans to spur business growth in several other ways.
New House Speaker Mike Milburn, a former Air Force pilot and rancher from Cascade, told The Associated Press that the goals will provide a roadmap for the new GOP majority. The list crystalizes and improves upon ideas conservatives have favored for years, and leaders think they are now achievable.
“The number one thing we are looking for this session, because we are in a recession, is job growth,” Milburn said. “Our main objective is to help natural resource opportunities.”
Social issues, like abortion restrictions and other such ideas favored by conservative Christians, are noticeably absent from the list of priorities House GOP leaders put together working closely with Senate leaders. The core constituency in their party understands the decision not to place emphasis on such issues.
“They have the ability to make it their own personal priority, and they are comfortable with it,” Milburn said.
Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers will be pitching a lot of ideas aimed at making it easier to build mines, drill wells, build power plants, cut trees and build major projects.
But Milburn said leadership will backing a plan that leaves “an environmentally friendly” regulatory and permit structure in place while making it much harder for environmentalists to file lawsuits. It will be the top priority.
Republicans have tinkered with the Montana Environmental Policy Act for years. But they feel the changes planned this time will have more impact.
Environmentalists who have beat back similar proposals in past sessions will again fight hard against the new plan — but likely face a losing battle in a Legislature clearly dominated by Republicans. Veteran lobbyist Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the GOP’s top priority won’t bring jobs and will only harm Montanans who will be unable to challenge bad permit decisions.
“It’s a tired old argument with no facts to back it up,” she said of the GOP efforts. “The public wants legislators to find real solutions, not scapegoats.”
Republicans plan to put more emphasis on making sure the environment remains protected from some of the mistakes extractive industries made in the past.
“We are not trying to do anything that will hurt our air and water, and we know Montanans are worried about that as well,” Milburn said.
The jobs blueprint laid out by GOP leaders also seeks to reduce the business equipment tax, a proposal Gov. Brian Schweitzer has also made. The Republicans will also aim to reduce the cost of workers compensation insurance, believing it is an impediment to businesses seeking to add workers, Milburn said.
The next priority for Republicans calls for cutting $383 million from projected spending over the next two years.
The GOP leaders have already tangled with the Schweitzer administration over this difference of opinion, a battle likely to last to final day of the Legislature. Schweitzer wants to use various pots of money to make ends meet until the economy rebounds and tax revenues return to pre-recession levels.
Republicans will be releasing specific agency targets early in the week to reach that goal — but it is likely every area will be reduced in some fashion. They also want to change the way the state builds its budget, getting rid of the automatic inflationary increases put into the base budget each session.
“We feel people want to limit the size and scope of government,” Milburn said.
In education, initiatives include a plan to increase distance learning opportunities for small schools — but overall funding is likely to be cut.
“I think everyone will get hit,” Milburn said. “I think everyone will have to share the pain.”
Milburn said the next priority includes several initiatives dealing with what the GOP describes as individual rights and freedom. Topping that list will be efforts to object to the federal health care law, such as putting ban on penalizing any Montanan who doesn’t want to buy health insurance.
Perhaps even drawing more attention will be efforts to assert state control over wolves. That may include an effort to take a Wyoming approach that ends any effort to work with the federal government on the issue.
“We have to have results or we have to remove ourselves from it,” Milburn said.
Milburn recognized that much of what the Legislature does opposing the federal initiates may be symbolic. The hope is to force changes by making enough political noise.
“That’s all we can do is put enough emphasis onto these areas where they have to act,” he said. “And some of it may seem radical.”
In other areas, in particular revamping MEPA to make lawsuits are more difficult, Milburn hopes to make measurable changes and believes that Schweitzer may agree with the final product so it can become law.
“We will be trying to develop a good workable bill that can pass all the way through,” Milburn said. “We are interested in results.”
It could be a tough sell. In general, Schweitzer has said the state’s regulatory environment is sound and has not been an impediment for him in attracting businesses to the state. On the other hand, Schweitzer has crossed environmentalists on several occasions.
“We think he is on our side on these jobs issues,” said House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, a financial planner from Billings. “He has said ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ over and over again.”
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