Saturday, January 31, 2009

Difficult Decisions in the 61st Montana Legislature

The Montana Legislature has just completed its 24th legislative day on Saturday, January 31. The session has been very busy thus far: more than 700 bills have been introduced to date, and House and Senate committees have heard testimony on any number of issues. The work can be very difficult, especially in a time of state and national economic challenge such as this, but be assured that legislators are as aware as each of you that now is a time for restraint. I’m most sensitive that our state and its services must live within its means just as every Montana household does.

Montana is one of just a handful of states—six or seven—that is not in a terrible deficit situation. Some states, like California, are billions of dollars in debt. Montana isn’t. Our Montana Constitution requires that we pass a balanced budget every two years for the upcoming biennium. That keeps us spending only what we can afford. Another great advantage Montana will have through this recession is that we produce food and energy, commodities which the market demands and which will keep us in much better shape than some other states or regions.

My day begins at 5:30 a.m., and I’m at the capitol by 6:30. At 7 a.m. every day there’s a leadership meeting, and morning committees, on which almost every legislator serves, start at 8 and go til noon. I serve on the House Taxation committee, and it’s been agonizing for my committee and others to decide what should be funded, and what we cannot afford, for Montanans this year. Should we give tax breaks for hearing aids? A tax credit for the purchase of long-term health insurance? Or for volunteer firefighters/EMTs? Or a tax exemption for military pensions? Or military paychecks? A tax credit for film companies who shoot productions in Montana? An Earned Income Tax Credit for our lowest-income workers? The House Taxation committee heard all these proposals and more in just one week. Other committees are deciding between more money for kids in Head Start programs, or money for the developmentally disabled; any number of critically-needed and much-used programs.

The House of Representatives and the Senate each convene at 1 p.m. Bills that have passed committee come to the floor of their respective chamber to be heard by the entire body. Bills that pass out of the House or Senate are referred to the other chamber for consideration. At 3 p.m. every day, afternoon committees meet til around 5 or 6 p.m. I serve as Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources committee, which has heard proposals for state lands purchases, recycling programs, timber sales, forest fire suppression, and more. We will consider mining law, water law, gravel pits, and oil and gas leases soon, some of those bills I’m sponsoring. I also serve on the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, which passed a stream access bill and last week heard a proposal to return authority for bison management around Yellowstone National Park to our own Department of FWP-—a controversial issue.

The evenings are busy, too, with many citizen groups or interest groups hosting events. Most legislators attend, to talk with constituents or representatives. My day ends around 10 or 11 p.m. Then I sleep fast, get up and do it all over again!

The work is fast-paced, intense, and fascinating. I’m constantly aware that these decisions aren’t lofty, theoretical discussions, but proposals for state law by which each of us will live. It’s about deciding what we can do for most Montanans, and what’s fair, and what’s most effective. I’m truly honored to serve, and be assured I and all of us are doing our best to make sure Montana weathers this economic storm and comes out for the better.


On a lighter note: best schwag of the week were the boxing pens! Pens with punch buttons in the back that activate the left or right punching arm. Very popular on the floor of the House, but then, Representatives are easily amused. Deb Kottel pictured with her boxing pen.

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