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GOP asserts its message
Denise Juneau shakes hands after her inauguration as state superintendent of public instruction Monday in the capitol rotunda.

HELENA - At the opening of the 2009 Montana Legislature on Monday, Republican leaders made it clear that they will push their agenda, saying their message of lower taxes and less government still resonates with the public.

"This is still a Republican state," Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, told fellow Republican senators at a party meeting hours before the Legislature convened at the Capitol, noting that Republicans regained majority control of the Senate despite a sweep of statewide offices by Democrats last November. "We have to carry (our) message and let people know why we're here."

House Minority Leader Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, was more blunt, telling fellow House members Monday during opening remarks that the state must "live within its means" and calling Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer "the biggest spender in the history of the state of Montana."

Schweitzer, however, likened the first day of the four-month Legislature to the opening round of a heavyweight prizefight, when competitors throw a few harmless jabs to feel out their opponent.

"I don't think either one of these political parties ought to get too full of themselves," he said in a brief interview Monday afternoon. "For either one of these parties to say we are a Republican state or a

Democratic state, I think it's maybe a little delusional.

"We are a state of independent thinkers and independent voters. I think it's only appropriate for people to disagree."

Republicans hold a 27-23 majority in the state Senate, and the House is split 50-50. Any bills passed by the Legislature must go through Schweitzer, who won re-election by a wide margin in November.

Democrats won the other four statewide state offices last election, as well as two of the three competitive seats on the state Public Service Commission, expanding their majority there to 4-1.

While legislative Republicans staked out their philosophical ground at the Capitol, Monday also featured the more traditional first-day promises and hopes that the two parties will work together to address the state budget and other thorny issues.

"Just because an idea comes from the other side of the aisle, don't dismiss it," Story told the full Senate shortly after he was elected to the body's top post unanimously. "The disagreements will be philosophical and not personal."

"I just think it was good to set a positive tone," House Majority Leader Margarett Campbell, D-Poplar, said after the House completed its opening floor session. Montanans aren't interested in partisan politics and "just want us to get our business done," she said.

Lawmakers will craft the state's budget for the next two years, as well as consider hundreds of other bills.

Montana is one of a handful of states not facing a budget deficit, but legislators of both parties have warned that state revenue may be less than expected, as the national economy's woes filter down to Montana.

Schweitzer is proposing a two-year budget that increases state spending by about 7.5 percent. For all state, federal and other funds, the total proposed spending is about $9.6 billion.

Sales rapped Schweitzer for increasing state general fund spending by 24 percent the past two years and 40 percent the past four years.

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A Gazette State Bureau analysis last year put the four-year increase at 34 percent, which included one-time spending to bolster financially unstable state employee pension funds, cash payments for state building projects and at least $100 million in tax rebates.

The governor noted that he vetoed numerous Republican-sponsored spending bills in the 2007 session.

"It was the executive branch by virtue of the veto pen that built Montana's largest budget surplus," Schweitzer said. "Sometimes people have a tough time keeping track of recent history."

While legislative Democratic leaders rarely mentioned specific issues Monday, Republicans outlined principles that they want to pursue, including an austere state budget, no overall tax increases from the property reappraisal, a clearer legal path for natural resource developers and openness in government.

"The more people can see what we're doing here, the more they will see that we're seriously trying to address problems," Story said.

Legislative Republicans have set up a blog at www.rotundareport.com, where they'll be interacting with and informing the public about what they're doing at the 2009 Legislature.

Story also said lawmakers - particularly Republicans - need to assert their role in setting policy and maintain a balance of power between the Legislature and the executive branch.

"One of our roles is to assert our agenda," he said.

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