BIGFORK – In the waning days of the 2011 Legislature, haggard lawmakers on the floor of the House, entering their fourth hour of debate, took up a controversial school-funding measure to redistribute some of the money generated by oil royalties in eastern Montana counties to help shore up schools across the state.
Vehemently defending their districts, eastern Montana Republicans called the measure “blatantly unfair,” and urged opposition. Then Scott Reichner stood up, and described the recent reappraisals that steeply increased property taxes for many Flathead Valley residents.
“In 2009 we had the biggest transfer of real estate taxes in the history of Montana from the west to the east,” Reichner, the Republican representative for Bigfork, said. “You also need to understand that we help subsidize the east.”
“I would disagree straight up that this is the east’s money,” Reichner added. “School districts don’t tax oil, it’s the state of Montana’s money – let’s get it straight.”
The bill, which Reichner helped cobble together after the GOP’s previous education funding plan stalled in the Senate, passed the House 50-49, and now awaits the signature of the governor. Thinking back on his remarks during an interview last week, Reichner, 44, smiled.
“Did you hear my speech? It was a good speech,” he said, before laughing. That’s about as big a boast as Reichner makes, despite his other major achievement of the session, shepherding what is widely regarded as the most important bill of the 2011 Legislature into law: an overhaul of Montana’s workers’ compensation insurance rates, which are currently ranked among the highest in the nation.
In a session marked by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer butting heads with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the images from the April 12 signing ceremony for the bill, with Reichner, a House sophomore, seated next to Schweitzer and lawmakers from both parties gathered behind, are striking in their bipartisanship.
Reichner earned accolades from all sides for the new law, which Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, also worked on when it arrived in the Senate. The overhaul is forecast to lower work comp rates about 24 percent in its first year, and an additional 15 percent in subsequent years.
“That’s the largest work comp reform in the state’s history,” Reichner said.
By making it cheaper for employers to pay for the insurance that covers their workers’ injuries, lawmakers believe businesses will be encouraged to hire more employees – thus achieving the political holy grail of “job creation.”
During Schweitzer’s visit to Whitefish last week, while tweaking other Republicans with characteristic relish, the governor praised Reichner and the new work comp bill.
“It’s going to be good for workers and it’s going to be good for employers,” Schweitzer said.
Months before the session, House Speaker Mike Milburn tasked Reichner with crafting a work comp bill that offered immediate savings for businesses – but required reconciling the interests of workers, medical providers and insurance companies.
“I knew I could count on him and I certainly wasn’t disappointed,” Milburn said, adding that Reichner is, “very even-tempered and uses good logic in his decision-making.”
Back in Bigfork last week, Reichner was – like legislators across Montana – acclimating to normal life after four months in the Helena bubble. He turned on the heat in his business, Flathead Mortgage, and readied the office after a season away.
“It’s good to be home. My wife is anxious for me to step back into my role,” Reichner, who has nine children and a 10th on the way, said.
Reichner is an active member of the Bigfork Church of Jesus Christ of LDS, an Eagle Scout, and sat on the school board for eight years. He sees his work in the Legislature, after winning a second House term last year, as an extension of his other involvements – motivated more by the public service aspect of elected office than ego service.
Hanging on the office’s walls are large, black-and-white photos of Reichner’s wife’s grandfather, Russ Peak, a renowned maker of fly-fishing rods, accompanied by a letter, dated Aug. 19, 1955, from President Dwight Eisenhower thanking Peak for a rod.
Reichner is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and self-described social conservative. But he expresses ambivalence about some of the bills pushed by members of his caucus affiliated with the tea party aimed at challenging federal authority and other causes that made national headlines, dominating the session’s first half.
“I stayed away from the social stuff,” Reichner said. “My primary focus this session was to be on jobs and helping the economy move forward.”
Reichner opposed bills adopting a gold standard in Montana, allowing a commission to nullify federal laws and bills allowing guns in schools, bars, churches and other places currently prohibited.
“We killed them all, because they were just bad for Montana,” Reichner said. “I think you’ve got to look at the end product.”
Though he didn’t carry such bills, Reichner voted for measures nullifying the Endangered Species Act, a resolution asserting state sovereignty, a bill aimed at over-turning local ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gay people and the so-called “Sheriff’s First” bill. All those bills were killed at some point in the legislative process, which Reichner believes is how the system should work.
“That tells me we’ve got a balanced government, in my opinion, the best type of government,” he said.
Despite his support for such measures, Reichner’s affability and pragmatic approach helped him forge bipartisan compromises on bigger issues, like school funding.
“Scott’s a very conservative individual, but at the same time does not impose his ideology,” Rep. Jon Sesso of Butte, the Democrat minority leader, said. “I appreciated that, as opposed to others from his position on the majority.”
Sesso added, however, “It was disconcerting at times when Scott would vote with the radical fringe.”
For Reichner and Republican leaders, those bills do not tell the story of the session. Although, as of this writing, Schweitzer has yet to sign or veto many of the major bills passed by the Legislature, Reichner touts work comp reform, a business equipment tax cut, a bill easing environmental regulations, another drastically altering medical marijuana laws and a balanced budget that trims spending.
“This legislative session, from my perspective, was highly successful because of these four or five things,” Reichner said. “We were able to get some very, very significant, historic legislation through.”
As for whether Reichner would consider eventually running for higher office, being a professional politician appeals to him less than participating in a citizen legislature.
“I really don’t have an axe to grind; I just feel like I’d like to contribute,” Reichner said. “I enjoy the service part of it – giving back.”
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