HELENA — In the shadow of a down economy and a politically split government, the 62nd Montana Legislature convenes Monday, with lawmakers and Gov. Brian Schweitzer vowing they'll do what needs to be done to boost jobs in the state.
“Our No. 1 job here is to create higher-paying jobs, create opportunities,” the governor said recently. “This is priority No.1, priority No. 2 and priority No. 3.”
Republicans, who control majorities in both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 2003, generally agree with the Democratic governor on the broad goals of the session.
“The major issue that we're focusing on is the economy and jobs,” said incoming House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. “The other thing that we believe people are looking for is to have a responsible and efficient government.”
Yet Schweitzer, who has a penchant for needling the opposition, may find himself locking horns more than a few times with Republicans over a range of issues, from the state budget to health care to the environment.
He already has angered lawmakers of both parties by labeling them “boozers,” with a comment two weeks ago about how alcohol consumption rises dramatically in Helena during the session and further statements about lobbyists plying legislators with free booze.
Still, the governor claims he wants to work with the Legislature to pass a budget and bills that will help the state propel its economy forward.
“It doesn't serve the people of Montana to create a divide between people,” he said recently. “We're looking for ways of bringing people together.”
Republicans hold a 28-22 edge in the Senate and a 68-32 majority in the House. Almost one-third of the 150 legislators this year are freshmen, having never served before.
Regardless of how friendly the opposing political parties feel toward each other, the 2011 Legislature faces a full plate of meaty, contentious issues during its four-month session.
Schweitzer has proposed a two-year, $8 billion budget that increases state funding for schools and the University System, increases spending on health care and social programs and cuts taxes for small businesses and Montana homeowners.
Republicans leaders say the Schweitzer budget relies too much on one-time transfers, and have vowed to scour the numbers with an eye toward making cuts and creating a spending plan that can be sustained into the future.
Lawmakers will consider whether to restrict or perhaps repeal Montana's medical-marijuana program. Many Republicans want to obstruct federal health-care reforms; other have their eye on rolling back certain environmental regulations they believe are hindering energy development.
Reforming Montana workers' compensation insurance, among the costliest in the nation, is a priority for both parties, as is cracking down on drunken driving.
Social and moral issues, such as abortion, assisted suicide and death-penalty abolition, also will surface — although leaders of both parties say they'd like to keep things focused on the economy.
“I do believe that moral issues are a very important part of politics and our society ... and they're personally important to me, also,” Milburn said. “But the focus of this session and the focus of Montana right now has to do with the economy and getting people back to work.”
“We've got to concentrate on the things that matter and not be distracted by these proposals from the past,” added incoming House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “Unless the proposal can show us that it is going to directly improve the lot of Montanans out of work, or those who are under-employed, we're going to resist it.”
With Republicans controlling solid majorities in both houses, they're in the position to pass whatever legislation they choose. But Schweitzer has the power to veto bills he doesn't like, and Democrats have the votes to uphold his veto in the Senate.
Some Republican lawmakers are looking to bypass possible Schweitzer vetoes with proposed referendums that would put their issues directly on the ballot.
Sesso says he thinks Democrats will have a role to play.
Democrats believe the state is on the right track, with a good business and tax climate and a budget that is in better shape than almost every other state, he says. Changes can be made to improve things, he says, and Democrats may support some of those changes — but they'll be a voice against making what he calls “wholesale changes that aren't necessary.”
“It's not prudent to use the downturn in the economy as a justification for changing the tax (and other) policies that are not perceived as broken by anybody,” Sesso said.
Milburn says that while Republicans are in control, he doesn't plan to cut Democrats out of the discussion: “They are going to feel they are an important part of the democratic process.”