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Horse sense: Legislature starts after bumpy road

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Charles S. Johnson HORSE SENSE

HELENA - Montana's 23rd governor and 59th Legislature take office Monday, facing tough decisions on a host of complex policy and budget issues.

Brian Schweitzer, who will be sworn in as governor, has ambitious goals about improving Montanans' quality of life so they can dream and feel pride in their state again.

Lawmakers and Schweitzer also must guide the state through the thicket of the Montana Supreme Court's school funding ruling. The court found the state's method of funding schools to be unconstitutionally inadequate.

On the positive side, Schweitzer and the 2005 Legislature inherit a state budget that is in dramatically better shape than the projected $232 million deficit that faced Gov. Judy Martz and lawmakers two years ago. This year, the budget's projected surplus approaches $200 million.

Plenty of questions have emerged about Schweitzer, a successful farmer-rancher who has never held public office before. They include:

Can he live up to his lofty ambitions to bring a new day to Montana? We shall see. Plenty of people - Republicans, reporters and others - stand ready to measure Schweitzer's actions against his campaign promises.

How much control does a governor really have over people's lives? Yes, a governor and Legislature set the state's budget and pass laws. However, the national and international economy likely have more to do with jobs, interest rates and thus housing costs and oil, gas and mineral exploration in a state than what any governor and Legislature can do.

Can Schweitzer truly lead in a bipartisan way, from the center, as he promised? His bipartisan campaign ads, featuring Republican running mate John Bohlinger and him, may have carried them to victory in a state whose residents are sick of the usual partisan bickering. Schweitzer faces a Senate where Democrats hold a 27-23 advantage, while the House is tied 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

Undoubtedly, he and Republicans will have to work together on some issues, but who knows if they can forge an alliance on many issues? That would be rare.

Are Republicans out to shoot down his proposals for political gain, philosophical differences or for other reasons? We shall see. Bohlinger received a chilly reception when he met with the Senate Republican caucus in mid-November. Republicans aren't pleased about going from controlling everything - the governorship and both legislative chambers - to their current status.

And the 2005 Legislature hasn't exactly started out smoothly.

It wasn't until last week that Montanans finally learned which party controlled the House. That was when the Montana Supreme Court threw out at least one of the double-marked ballots that Lake County officials had counted for Constitution Party candidate Rick Jore, tying for the House District 12 seat. Martz broke the tie to appoint Jore, which gave Republicans a 50-49 edge over Democrats, with Jore the lone Constitution Party member.

However, the Supreme Court put Jeanne Windham in the House, creating a 50-50 tie. Because the new governor is a Democrat, his party gets to organize the House.

Who knows what will happen when the House picks its leaders. In November, House Democrats elected Rep. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula to be their minority leader again. After the court decision, he stood ready to be move up to the top job of speaker.

But Rep. Gary Matthews, D-Miles City, may put into action his long-rumored plan to challenge Wanzenried for speaker, counting on the help from a few Democrats and, he hopes, nearly every Republican.

Can Matthews pull off this challenge? We will find out on Monday. If he does succeed, can he lead a House Democratic caucus that figures to be deeply divided over his candidacy? Will Matthews run, as some have suggested, as an independent instead of a Democrat for speaker to make it more palatable for Republicans to vote for him?

Can Wanzenried hold his party and win the speaker's job? He might need a little help from his friends on the Republican side, if he has any. House GOP Leader Roy Brown of Billings, who was slated to be House speaker before the ruling, expressed concern over the precedent of one party interfering in the other's choice of its leaders.

And what about the House Republicans? Will they stick with Brown, their 2003 majority leader who led their legislative campaign efforts? There was talk late last week that ambitious Rep. Mike Lange, R-Billings, who was set to be the House majority leader before the court decision, might try to take out Brown.

On the Senate side, it took until Friday for the Yellowstone County Commission to pick Jeff Essman to replace Bohlinger in a decision that should have been made shortly after the Nov. 2 election, not three days before the Legislature convenes.

Bohlinger didn't help when refused to submit his resignation in a timely way. He held out trying in vain to dictate that his preferred successor, Sen. Royal Johnson, R-Billings, be on the list of three people the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee forwarded to the county commissioners.

If we quit our jobs, not many of us get to recommend our successors.

Nonetheless, it defies logic that the GOP Central Committee wouldn't have included Johnson (who is not a relative of mine, incidentally) on its list. Johnson was one of the state's finest legislators during his tenure.

Finally, at last, we have the 2005 Legislature in place. May the session run more smoothly than the events leading up to it.

Charles Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is csjohnson@qwest.net.

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