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Jim Gransbery BARBED WIRE

Montana Republicans seem lost in a late-medieval time warp.

After suffering through one of the more contentious, unproductive legislative gatherings in three decades, they are taking their spin of the session on a grand tour of the state, trying to explain that although they have controlled the governor's seat, the Senate and the House for almost a decade, the Democrats are to blame for the $134 million black hole the GOP sent to the next Legislature.

Their 10-day, 43-city tour - in Billings Monday - is reminiscent of the grand tour of Spain taken by Queen Johanna the Mad (Juana la Loca to her close friends) with the corpse of her husband, Felipe. The full story can be found in James Michener's "Iberia."

It seems that after the death of the handsome, lustful Austrian prince, a Carthusian monk convinced the addled daughter of Isabel and Fernando that sufficient prayers would resurrect her late consort. He died in September 1506 and Juana began her journey to various monasteries in the realm, hoping to find the right setting for the return of her beloved.

On Nov. 1, she had the casket opened to assure herself the king was with her. Around Christmas, the casket was again opened. One of the queen's companions noted in her diary, "All had calcified into a solid mass and it did not have the odor of perfume."

After almost three years of wandering about, the mad lady consented to the entombment of the remains, while she herself was locked up in a palace for the remaining 46 years of her life. Her son, the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V, did not want any more scandal from his mother.

And so it is with the Republicans, touring with the skeleton that is the state's biennial budget.

It was looking sickly when the 2003 Legislature began. It was confronted with a revenue shortfall of $232 million to fund current programs for the next two years. Gov. Judy Martz offered a budget plan that cut spending and required a $93 million withdrawal from the Coal Tax Trust Fund. But that needed a three-fourths majority vote in each chamber of the Legislature. In her budget message, the governor complained that part of the problem was structural imbalances built into the budget. What she meant is that the current budget contained one-time funding sources. So, oddly enough, she proposed balancing her budget with a one-time revenue source of $93 million. It was a preview for the Legislature. The Democrats should have gone for the $93 million; it would have been cheaper.

On the first day of the session, the Republican leadership announced that the starting point for their budget would be fiscal year 2000, a year in which spending approximated the revenue available for the years 2004-05. That also gave them some wiggle room to put in some money, moving toward the governor's proposed budget, but less than current spending.

Unable by several maneuvers to get coal tax money - they could not even control their own caucuses - the Republican majority pulled together several one-time funding sources (read structural imbalance of $134 million), taxed rental cars and raised taxes on cigarettes and motel beds to build a budget - one that depends on nicotine-addicted citizens to provide the offset for income tax reductions for those making more than $130,000 a year.

Nowhere in the budget will one find the 20 percent increase in tax, oops, ah, tuition to college students and their parents. Just the latest spike in the decade-long effort to turn Montana's public higher education into a private school. The tuition increases will make the cost of out-of-state colleges attractive, accelerating the downward spiral for Montana's University System. Tuition has doubled in a decade.

Lest the Democrats take any comfort in the predicament of their opponents, they should note that they are more factionalized than the supporters of the Spanish Republic during the civil war in 1936-39. Just look at the Butte-Anaconda Democrats, who went into a funk and created a separate caucus after failing to pass a flimflam bill to turn Butte into Las Vegas North and every Indian reservation into a casino.

Yes, both parties are taking their message to the public. As if the public didn't understand what was happening in the first place.

What the GOP needs is a name for its tour.

Harking back to Juana, they could call it the "Lipstick on a Corpse Tour."

They ought to bid out the T-shirt concession and put the proceeds into the general fund.

Jim Gransbery can be contacted at jgransbery@billingsgazette.com

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