The Montana Legislature’s New Political Paradigm
Rep. Ted Washburn Tells Us What to Expect from the Newly Empowered Majority
By Pat Hill
The Montana Legislature is likely to be leaning a little more to the right than it has for the past few years after Republicans gained control of the House and Senate in November, and Jan. 3 marks the beginning of a new political reality for the Governor's Office as well.
Riding a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment that washed across the nation in the last election, Republicans gained control of both sides of the Montana Legislature for the first time since 2003. They hold a 68-32 super-majority in the State House, and control the Senate by a 28-22 margin. The state's budget and jobs in the wake of the Great Recession will likely top the agenda in Helena this session.
“Gov. Schweitzer has already met with the Appropriations Committee, and we've already been talking with legislative services [in Helena],” said Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman), who represents House District 69 in Gallatin County. He told the Pioneer that although “the governor is painting a rosy picture…he's also shuffling money from one account to the other.”
“The basic thing is that we don't see, for the next three to five years, the economy being back to what it was before this downturn,” Washburn said. “I don't care which economist you talk to, they're all saying the same thing.”
Washburn said that the economy in Montana and the rest of the nation is not getting back on track as fast as some reports in the media claim.
“The newspapers print whatever Obama tells them, whatever Schweitzer tells them, and that's all there is to it,” claimed Washburn. “They follow the leader of the state, and the leader in Washington. I would be most happy to find out we're wrong, and that we do have a big rosy future, but we've been tracking where [Schweitzer] has been getting some of the money, and we know he's taken money from other accounts.”
Washburn, who will serve this session on the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee, said he was looking into the Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget for money slated for habitat improvement, “and you can't find where the money is…it's a matter of seeing where they've got the money parked. Every agency is the same way. When we go in to get the figures regarding those accounts, you can't even begin to find where the money is. We've got to find out where the money is, how much they've really got, and how much they're spending.”
Though the legislature and the governor work together when crafting the state's budget, it's the Governor's Office that ultimately controls the purse-strings, over every department of state government, once lawmakers return to their home districts after a legislative session.
“What we really need to do, other than just post the budget on the [Montana Legislative] website, is we really need to put the checkbook out there,” said Washburn. “We need to let people see what we're spending, and where it's going.” Washburn said that such sunshine policies regarding actual spending do exist in other states, and he said that some Montana legislators are working to accomplish the same in the Treasure State.
“We have a chance to get it done this session. We need to have the sunlight on where we're spending money,” said Washburn. “And that's the key…if you're spending more than you've got, then you're in trouble.”
Gov. Schweitzer has reportedly called detractors claiming that Montana already has a deficit “damn liars,“ according to the Associated Press, and the governor may be correct, in that the Treasure State is currently operating in the black. According, though, to Truth in Accounting, a non profit public interest group based in Northbrook, Illinois, the state’s official budget does not take into account billions of dollars of liabilities related to pension benefits (nor is it required to do so by law), and with continued slow economic growth in the state, the Legislative Fiscal Division is predicting revenues will be 8-10 percent short of funding a predicted $4 billion budget.
“Obviously, the budget, and jobs to get the economy rolling, are the important thing here in this state, “ Washburn said. He said that a return to the tried-and-true in Montana is the key to firing up the state's economic engine.
“A lot of jobs have to come from natural resources, because that's what we've got,” said Washburn. “We still have the timber, we still have the gold, we still have the oil and gas…it's there, it's just a matter of getting those industries back and producing again.”
Washburn also said that the state needs “to make it friendly for small business to come into Montana.”
“Small business is really where it's at,” he said. “The folks who employ 10 to 15 people…they're the backbone. We have no real corporations here. Besides the schools and municipal government and the like, there's no real large employers…we've lost of them. We need to get that entrepreneurial spirit going again, and get those jobs out there.” Washburn said Montana's regulatory processes involving small business are excessive, contributing in part to the state's economic woes.
“When it takes you forever to get a permit to operate in this state…it's ridiculous,” said Washburn. “The permits that they do in North Dakota take less than a year to get. Here it would take you four years. You lose your incentive and loan opportunities waiting four years.”
“Both parties have agreed that new taxes are out,” Washburn said. “We just have to cut the size of government, and they'll be some cutting of programs…there just has to be. But you've got to be careful where you cut programs.” That's because many of Montana's state programs, such as Health and Human Services, Education, and Corrections, also operate on budgets assisted with federal matching funds. Some programs get as much as $3 in federal funds for every dollar the state is contributing.
“You've got to pay attention to what a cut is going to cost you…you've really got to think out what you're doing before you do it,” said Washburn.
Medical marijuana is another hot-button issue in Montana these days, and the Associated Press chose Montana's medical marijuana “boom” as the top Treasure State story for 2010. Montana voters approved marijuana for medical use in 2004 by the largest margin of any state that has voted on the matter (62 percent). But state-sanctioned medical marijuana use in Montana remained at a relative minimum until the Obama Administration signaled that federal prosecutions involving marijuana would receive a low priority in states allowing for its medical use. In the last 18 months or so, the number of medical marijuana patients in Big Sky Country has skyrocketed to well over 20,000 participants. News about medical marijuana in Montana has even surfaced in the Wall Street Journal in the last few weeks, after prosecutors in Missoula could not seat a jury in a case involving a small amount of pot, after potential jurors said they would not waste the court's time and money over 1/16 of an ounce of marijuana. But Washburn said the legislature will revisit the issue of medical marijuana this session.
“Everybody thought this was about Grandma and Grandpa in their '90s, suffering from pain,” said Washburn. “But most of the cards are issued to middle-aged people right down to teenagers. The schools have had to put in rules and regulations, the cities have had to get regulations in place. The state and the [legislative] interim committees have had to look at the issue, and we're going to come out with some basics to regulate the industry.” Washburn said that “it's too early” to know which laws will pass because several bills regarding Montana's medical marijuana program have been filed.
“Some of the things I'm looking for,” said Washburn, “is that the marijuana is grown in Montana…we do not want it coming in from out-of-state. The taxes attached to marijuana should be regular income taxes…as far as I'm concerned, there should be no additional taxing on marijuana because you open up a slippery slope. Are we going to start taxing other medications? I don't want to go there.” Washburn said he does want to see clearer parameters governing what dispensaries, growers and care providers can and cannot do.
“I feel that, except for some areas, the rules are already pretty reasonable,” said Washburn. “But we do need to have some product liability…at this point there is no product liability regarding marijuana…there can be mold or pesticides that if ingested are going through your stomach or your lungs. So there's got to be some product liability among those who grow and dispense marijuana…that's no more than we would expect from, say, over-the-counter drugs.”
Washburn said he also wants to see doctors “take the time” to see what's causing pain for those individuals seeking a medical marijuana card.
“We don't want to see pain masked over with any drug,” Washburn said. “That's not practicing good medicine.” He added that a bill seeking the repeal of Montana's medical marijuana program, which one Montana lawmaker has submitted to Legislative Services, will probably not see the light of day.
“Montana voters approved this program,” said Washburn. “As a legislator, you can't override the will of the people in good conscience. We represent the people…if they've said they want a marijuana bill, I can't vote for repealing it. But when the people speak, we have a duty to make that law work.”
“Basically, I look at it like this,” said Washburn. “We've got the majority in the House and Senate. The people have given us a second chance to get it right, and to do what they want us to do. We've got this opportunity to go and pass bills that are good for our constituents and good for our state, and get the spending under control. We represent the whole state of Montana, so we need not pass any bad bills that are going to hurt industry or people's freedoms, but we need to get business moving.”
Montanans can follow what's going on this session in Helena beyond their newspapers, radios and televisions by logging on to the state's legislative website: leg.mt.gov/.