HELENA – Three days before the midterm recess of the 62nd Montana Legislature, the House of Representatives was engaged in a fierce debate over a resolution asserting state sovereignty when a Republican stood up to voice his frustration with the members of his party.
“I’ve been campaigning for, this is my eighth term. I am waiting for the first door that I’ve knocked on that one of my constituents says to me that sovereignty is the most important issue I am looking at – not one, not one,” Rep. Walter McNutt, a long-serving moderate Republican from Sidney, said. “I’m getting letters and comments from my constituents and you are scaring the you-know-what out of them with this kind of talk.”
“This needs to stop and stop now,” he went on. “We’ve heard enough this session. I say stop it here; quit scaring our constituents and quit letting us look like a bunch of buffoons.”
McNutt’s comments underline the central tension of the current Legislature: that while Republican leaders went into the session saying they would focus on improving Montana’s economy to encourage jobs, the brunt of media coverage emerging from Helena over the last two months has focused on the many bills sponsored by tea party-style conservatives aimed at states’ rights and social issues. (The state sovereignty resolution passed 54-45.)
Republicans hold a 68-32 majority in the House and a 28-22 edge in the Senate, so it’s unsurprising that many bills favored by conservatives are advancing farther through the Legislature than in previous sessions where Democrats held more power. But unlike previous sessions, several GOP bills have garnered national attention.
Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, recently appeared on CNN to debate with Anderson Cooper on a so-called “birther” bill, aimed at addressing the incorrect belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The Washington Post ran a story about a bill by Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, that would embrace global warming as good for Montana’s economy. The Huffington Post picked up a story on a bill by Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, popular among gun rights groups allowing communities to organize armed paramilitary companies called “home guards,” during emergencies. (All three bills have been tabled.)
Democrats, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, point to such bills as examples of Republicans failing to maintain focus on the economy during the first half of the Legislature as the state shakily emerges from a deep recession.
“I will say to this point about what they’ve accomplished: 44 wasted days, a $2-million waste of Montana taxpayers’ money and I agree with every word that Walt (McNutt) said,” Schweitzer commented, during an interview the day before the midterm recess. “They should go home and stay home until they are willing to come back here and work together to improve Montana’s economy and create higher-paying jobs.”
But Republicans, particularly those comprising the Flathead delegation, express frustration that various measures the GOP is advancing to boost the economy do not command the attention other pieces of legislation do.
In the weeks preceding the midterm recess, the GOP began issuing daily lists of the advancing bills aimed at the economy and jobs as part of an effort to emphasize its work in that area. Kalispell’s Bruce Tutvedt, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, maintained that the economy remains the focus of the session, despite the headlines devoted to social and states rights issues.
“I know there’s a lot of emotion on these issues and they make a lot of press,” Tutvedt said. “Truthfully, they’re a very minor part of what’s happening in the Legislature at this time.”
“The Senate leadership and the House leadership absolutely are focused on jobs,” Tutvedt added. “We talk exclusively about jobs and a better tax climate and a better health care climate.”
Republicans are carrying bills to roll back the business equipment tax, paid for largely by eliminating certain tax credits. They are also tackling an eminent domain law aimed at encouraging the development of energy transmission lines while also protecting property rights. The Senate last week passed two bills modifying the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that would allow for faster permitting of natural resource development projects, and make it harder to sue to block those projects.
Tutvedt and Rep. Mark Blasdel of Somers chair the Taxation committees, and are working on bills to ease the sting of recent property reappraisals on the Flathead, though eastern Montana lawmakers are reluctant to support such measures, and Tutvedt acknowledged they may not drastically reduce property values.
“While there’s no silver bullet in this, we feel that they are steps in the right direction,” Tutvedt said.
Rep. Scott Reichner, of Bigfork, is carrying the GOP’s key bill aimed at reducing workers compensation rates, and said that alone could drastically improve the state’s business climate to encourage hiring.
“Arguably, we’re doing more for business in this state than any other session in the history of the Legislature,” Reichner said. “Most of us have been working on major, business-oriented bills.”
When pressed for their opinions of certain bills devoted to states’ rights, like a measure introduced by Whitefish Republican Rep. Derek Skees appointing a commission to nullify federal laws, other members of the Flathead delegation typically steer the conversation back to the economy.
“You get 100 people here and that’s part of a citizen Legislature; people are going to put bills together that they think are important,” Reichner said. “The Flathead delegation has done a good job of staying focused on jobs.”
Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish was more candid.
“There has been a high number of, I would say, ‘elevated distraction’ bills that take a lot of time,” Zinke said. “The ability for the states to pick and choose what federal laws we adhere to, I think, was settled during the Civil War.”
But Zinke observed such bills come in reaction to the overreach he sees by the federal government in the form of the new health care law or proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. (Montana Republicans have introduced measures to nullify both.)
“I think the federal government has overreached,” he added. “By the same token, the state government should not overreach either.”
As the Democrats’ only backstop against measures they oppose, Schweitzer declined to specify what he intends to veto should they cross his desk at the end of the session, but produced a list of 92 bills flagged by legislative staffers as potentially unconstitutional.
“A bill arrives here and it’s unconstitutional I have the courts telling me, ‘veto it,’ so that’s the way it works,” Schweitzer said. “If they’re clearly unconstitutional, on this list or otherwise, I have to.”
In its second half, the focus of the session will turn to crafting a state budget, the Legislature’s sole constitutional responsibility. In that arena, the fight will return to revenue estimates, of which Schweitzer is considerably more optimistic than Republican lawmakers. It also remains to be seen whether some of the more divisive bills passed by the House will survive the Senate, where the tea party contingent is smaller.
As of day 45, Republicans appear confident that if they pass a balanced budget in 90 days and follow through on several of their major economic initiatives, it will be hard not to look back on the session and call it a success – regardless of any distractions along the way.
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