In our January legislative preview, the Independent likened the Montana Legislature to a game show in hell, wherein contestants answer questions, but right or wrong, they can only lose money. Before the 2003 legislative session, Democrats insisted that the game show needed to be overhauled with new rules, real prizes and even a new host. And they insisted that they were the party to do it.
A decade ago, the Democrats’ goal would have been impossible, but last November, the party gained ground in both the House and Senate. Democrats, who haven’t held control of either house since the 1993 session, picked up seven formerly GOP seats this year, shrinking the Republican edge in the House from 57-42 (with one independent) to 53-47, and whittling the GOP majority in the Senate from 31-19 to 29-21. They were excited, energized and ambitious—maybe unrealistically ambitious.
“Probably two or three weeks in, I realized that in the entire Republican caucus of 53, not one of them had ever been in the minority,” says House Minority Leader Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula). “I think that explains a lot.”
With the governor and a few dozen Republicans signing a no-new-taxes pledge, there was very little room for bipartisan politics. And the most polarizing issues were the two that dominated the session: the economy and the budget.
“If you’re looking for compromises in the final solution to the budget, they are pretty hard to find,” says Speaker of the House Doug Mood (R-Seeley Lake). “But we did manage to balance the budget, and we did it without any major tax increases.”
Mood called the $232 million shortfall the “biggest fiscal crisis in the history of the state”—a sentiment echoed by Gov. Martz—and Mood believes just balancing the budget is an achievement of which his party can be proud. But what Republicans call a triumph, Democrats hail as the session’s biggest tragedy.
“We have a Constitutional requirement to balance the budget,” says Senate Minority Whip John Ellingson (D-Missoula). “So I don’t know that you can claim that doing what you have an obligation to do is something you can pat yourself on the back for.”
Democrats went into the session hoping to plug holes in a troubled education system and an ailing health and human services department by swaying moderate Republicans, keeping their votes together and passing revenue-raising bills. But there just weren’t enough moderate Republicans to sway. Even with the party united, almost none of the Democrats’ budget and tax bills and amendments could find enough votes. In the end, Ellingson says the Dems’ greatest substantive victory was blocking Republicans from taking money from the Coal Tax Trust fund, which the Republicans would have needed a super-majority to do. But while Republicans complain about not using the fund to balance the budget, the party has few other failures to complain about.
“We didn’t get everything, they didn’t get everything, but I think the people got the best we could give them for the times that we’re in,” Gov. Martz said in a press conference shortly after Saturday’s adjournment.
By April 26, the Democrats were defeated. Lawmakers had finally balanced the budget with more than $100 million in budget cuts, $75 million in tax increases, and funding shifts that involved taking $31 million from one-time sources like the state workers’ compensation “old” fund. But more important than how the money was juggled is how the juggling will play out for Montanans over the next two years.
Here’s how some of the issues most important to Western Montanans fared in the 2003 session.
Education: For a while it was called “privatization,” but the euphemism never seemed to fit. Now the transference of costs from the state to the student is referred to as “self-sustaining.” Whatever the term, the result is that Montana’s system of higher education is getting less from the Legislature and relying more on private money to survive.
“You have to factor in inflation and all the other increased costs like insurance and campuses with more students,” says UM lobbyist Bill Johnston. “When you do that, we’re getting basically the same amount we did in 1992.”
The University system will receive $273 million from the state over the next biennium, and while funding levels remain stagnant, the number of in-state students the system has to educate has gone up by almost 3,000 in the last two years. The increased costs will be made up by a tuition hike of around 10 percent.
K-12 education often fares better than higher education because there are no tuition increases to hoist on the students. But after this session, K-12 will be hoisting the costs of education onto students’ parents, in the form of increased local levies, says MEA-MET president Eric Feaver.
“It’s been mostly a friggin’ disaster from our perspective,” he says. “I would call this session one of the most lamentable, sorry-faced excuses for a Legislature in not only modern history, but in all of the history of Montana.”
Feaver says all education lobbyists could do this session was hope to hold tight at last session’s funding levels—which many considered to be inadequate. In the end, K-12 ended up with little more than a single-digit percentage increase in state per-student funding.
Rep. Mood says he’s not worried about funding levels because of an influx of federal education money headed toward Montana. But Rep. Wanzenried says federal dollars can’t be used for the things Montana schools are desperate for.
“The federal money doesn’t just dump money into our school system,” he says. “You can’t use money intended for special education for general classroom instruction. And schools right now need general classroom instruction.”
Conservation: When members of conservation groups are asked about the successes and failures of the 2003 session, many have a similar response: The successes can be counted quickly; the failures will take a while. However, conservation lobbyists did win a major victory in killing a bill from Sen. Debbie Shea (D-Butte) that asked voters to reconsider their 1998 ban on the cyanide heap-leach mining of gold and silver. The ban is something many conservation groups have been working on for a decade. Some felt that if the ban were to fall it would have been a crushing blow to conservationist morale.
“This has been our baby for the last few years, and some of us look at it as our one big success,” says Montana Environmental Information Center lobbyist Jeff Barber.
But beyond the death of Shea’s bill, the victories are few and far between. Barber says that his group and others were successful in defending what is left of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA)—which has undergone substantial changes in the past few sessions.
On the downside of the enviro ledger were bills that weakened air and water quality laws and changed the appeals process for challenging the environmental permits of industrial projects—often permitting projects to go forward while appeals are being heard.
Election and initiative reform: Fans of the initiative process have a lot to be grateful for in the defeat of Rep. Alan Olson’s (R-Roundup) HB 719, which would have moved the date that initiative petitions are due from June to April, making it more difficult to gather signatures.
“A lot of the things in there were really half-baked,” says initiative process watchdog Mark Mackin. “I think that the legislators to some extent smelled that. But we succeeded after we managed to get some public attention about [Olson’s bill], and I think that a lot of legislators heard from constituents.”
Secretary of State Bob Brown’s package of election reform bills passed with changes that include requiring voters to present ID when they go to the polls, and the ban of punch-card ballots.
“These new laws will vastly improve both the integrity and the accessibility of elections in Montana,” says Brown.
MontPIRG’s David Ponder agrees that some of the changes are necessary, but worries that others, like the identification requirement, will intimidate voters and reduce turnout.
Health: Opponents of smoking saw two key victories neutered this session. An initiative devoting more of the state’s tobacco settlement money to smoking-prevention programs was compromised when $11 million of the settlement money was allocated for programs for the poor, disabled, and mentally ill, and a Helena indoor smoking ban was overturned after being approved by 62 percent of voters last June.
“I would say the tobacco lobby and the tavern lobby were the most powerful lobbies in the state this session,” says Kristen Nei of the American Cancer Society. “Pretty much they got what they wanted, and this should be a wakeup call about who was directing our state this session.”
Human services: The $540 million human services budget received a few million dollars more than it did last biennium, but Democrats say that the money is not enough, and that increasing caseloads and a faltering economy have led to the scaling back of programs. Many programs were saved only by shifting money around in the department’s budget.
“It’s just disappointing, because there were some really good tax proposals put forward,” says Working for Equality and Economic Liberation lobbyist Mary Caferro. “But in the end, we end up with this ridiculous transferring of money from one population to another.”
Both Sen. Ellingson and Rep. Wanzenreid say human services funding is among their chief concerns, because if the state runs out of money in the next two years—and both say that’s likely—Martz will probably try to avoid a special session by balancing the budget with another 10 percent cut out of the department’s budget.