Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series by the Gazette State Bureau examining the major issues facing the 2013 Legislature, which convenes Jan. 7.
HELENA — Next week, it will be a new political game in town for Montana — a new governor, new legislative leadership, and new promises to work together at the 2013 Legislature to tackle the state’s problems, from the economy to energy to education.
Yet the Montana Legislature, which convenes in Helena on Jan. 7, also has shades of sessions past, with a Democratic governor, a Republican-controlled House and Senate, and some very different ideas on state spending priorities and what to do with a budget surplus approaching $500 million.
Still, the two sides say they would like to turn the page on the sometimes bitter partisan battles of recent sessions and find common ground on economic issues facing the state.
““We’re going to work with anybody who is open to working with us to develop solutions that will move our state forward,” said incoming Senate President Jeff Essmann, a Billings Republican. “Obviously that will require cooperation.”
“I think we’ve got to go in focused, and stay focused, on job creation and kick-starting the economy to the best extent possible,” said his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte.
Issues like health care reform, fish and game, public-employee pensions and campaign finance are on the agenda as well.
But most lawmakers say the state’s economy is foremost on their mind, and intertwined with the economy are energy development and education, both of which will see major proposals to influence their future paths.
The economy in Montana didn’t suffer as much as it did in many states during the Great Recession, but state unemployment still stands at about 6 percent and Montana’s average wages rank near the bottom of the 50 states.
Essmann says developing Montana’s natural resources, such as coal, oil, natural gas and timber, is the ticket to higher-paying jobs in the state.
When it comes to actual energy proposals before the Legislature, Republicans — and some Democrats as well — are looking more toward laying the infrastructure groundwork that can foster development and help cities and schools deal with the impact of ongoing booms in oil and gas, primarily in Eastern Montana.
Also within that discussion is how best to finance and boost education, to train workers who are ready for jobs related to hoped-for energy booms.
Most lawmakers say they’re not really looking to change environmental laws or regulations.
“I just don’t think that any regulatory blocking of oil and gas is really happening in the state, at least not over here,” said Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, an attorney who’s been working for oil-and-gas-related businesses in northeastern Montana.
The issues are more related to housing, sewer-and-water systems, roads and other infrastructure needed to smooth the way for energy development and its workers, Knudsen and others say.
Toward that end, several proposals are expected for an oil-and-gas impact fund or trust fund, which would provide long-term funding for infrastructure and related problems. However, legislative leaders say they’re far from settled on what type of approach and funding will be proposed.
“There is a real desire to help out the impacted areas, but the best way to do that, we’re not sure yet,” Knudsen said. “We’re still kicking around some ideas.”
Sesso also said whatever impact fund is chosen must fairly distribute oil-and-gas money where it’s most needed, leave money for needs elsewhere in the state, and fund infrastructure that will benefit areas for the long term.
“I think we can get bipartisan support behind it, but it’s got to be fair to the rest of the state,” he said.
Democrats in the Legislature have some infrastructure ideas of their own that they say are crucial for boosting the economy.
Tops among them is a multimillion-dollar bill to finance construction projects at state university and two-year college campuses, some of which they say are in dire need of new facilities that can help prepare Montana workers for jobs in technical fields.
The building projects also will provide needed jobs in the construction industry, they add.
“You take all of those things together, and I think you’ll see Democrats saying, `How can we take care of infrastructure needs and put people to work at the same time?’” said House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.
He also says most Democrats view energy development in the state as a good thing — as long as it’s properly balanced against environmental concerns.
As for any dramatic changes on energy policy, most lawmakers don’t see it happening.
Republicans sometimes have been critical of renewable-power development in the state, such as wind power, and have proposed revising the state’s mandate that utilities have a minimum of renewable power.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who will be chairing the Senate Energy Committee, said he’s advising fellow Republicans to back off from any proposed changes. He’s supporting a bill that would fund a comprehensive study of the impacts of the renewable-power mandate, which took effect almost 10 years ago.
“I’d encourage our committee to hold back on any action on the (mandate) until we have some good, credible information to work with,” he said.
Coming Tuesday: The state’s big budget surplus underlies the usual battles over spending, tax issues.