How Did the Tea Party Fare in the 2011 Legislature?

By Beacon Staff

EVERGREEN – Republicans, many of whom enjoyed the backing of tea party-style political groups, stormed into Helena with strong majorities for the 2011 Legislature. And over the course of the session some of the bills backed by tea party Republicans, like measures aimed at nullifying federal laws or introducing a gold and silver standard for currency, drew national attention.

But few of those bills passed the Legislature, and the handful that did met their demise under the veto pen (or branding iron) of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. In light of this outcome, six local lawmakers took questions before an audience of about 60 at the Valley Victory Church last week in a forum hosted by the Northwest Montana Patriots, a conservative group that has sprouted up in the last two years.

Some audience members didn’t ask questions so much as use their time at the microphone to air their concerns about the influence of Islamic Shariah law or assert that the United States is becoming an increasingly socialist society.

“At the rate we’re going, we can wipe all those 50 stars off (the flag) and just put one communist star up there,” Bill Biernat, executive director of a group calling itself Montanans in Action, said.

Other audience members, however, asked detailed, provocative questions of the lawmakers, challenging their conservative bona fides on votes concerning some of the most controversial issues of the Legislature, like medical marijuana and eminent domain.

Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, was challenged on why he voted for a bill aimed at boosting the development of transmission lines by giving energy companies eminent domain authority in some instances. Jackson replied that he read state law, and believes that authority existed already.

“What this (House Bill) 198 did was clarify what the company already had,” Jackson said. “History will prove us one way or the other.”

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, endured tough questioning on whether the medical marijuana law, which will essentially end the industry in Montana, was an attempt by lawmakers to “legislate morality,” particularly since the 2004 ballot initiative legalizing the drug passed overwhelmingly.

Skees responded that the current state of the medical marijuana industry is not what many voters intended, and by the end of the session lawmakers faced a choice between doing nothing, or supporting the bill that passed.

“The businesses wanted us to fix it and the citizens of the state wanted us to fix it,” Skees said.

Another audience member questioned why lawmakers on the panel – which also included Republican representatives Keith Regier, Randy Brodehl, Jerry O’Neil, and Mark Blasdel – were silent when federal agents raided marijuana grow operations in March, despite an otherwise outspoken advocacy of states’ rights. The lawmakers declined to respond.

Several audience members spoke up in support of a failed bill that would have backed Montana’s currency with gold and silver. In a recent speech in Whitefish, Schweitzer singled out that bill, ridiculing it by describing tourists calling local hotels to ask how much gold it would take to reserve a room.

Many at the meeting, including lawmakers, expressed their deep frustration with Schweitzer’s vetoes of conservative measures.

“Our governor is becoming more and more of a dictator,” Mike Hebert said. “We should destroy the power structure of the governor, weaken him so the elected representatives have more power.”

Skees said he learned in his first session how much power the executive branch wields, and recommended how tea partiers could be most effective in reaching their political goals: “If you want a change, get a good governor.”

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