HELENA — The 31st special legislative session in Montana history is now history.
Montanans can credit the session’s accomplishments — or blame its failures, depending on their viewpoint — on the now-legendary gathering at a lodge in the woods west of Helena on May 5.
Thirteen House Republicans, most of them moderates, and top Schweitzer administration officials met privately at Rep. John Ward’s log lodge on that sunny Saturday. They cobbled together the compromises that became the basis of what happened in the special session.
Only after learning that a deal had worked out did Schweitzer call lawmakers back to Helena for a special session to begin May 10.
Five work days later, legislators had finished their work. The special session passed a state budget for the next two years, approved a few tax breaks, passed a school funding plan and enacted incentives for “clean and green’’ energy development.
The bitterly divided regular 90-day legislative session had ended April 27. Lawmakers slunk out of town, each party blaming the other for not passing these bills. A government shutdown loomed July 1 if Schweitzer didn’t call a special session to pass a budget.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, had thought he negotiated a handshake deal with then-House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, in the waning days of the regular session. Lange abandoned the deal after other Republican leaders trashed it. Then Lange attacked Schweitzer in his profanity-laden tirade to fellow House Republicans.
From the moment legislators left, Schweitzer made no secret of his goal. He wanted a deal with House Republicans, despite his failed efforts at negotiating in the regular session. The governor said he told House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, a number of times to no avail that “everything is on the table.’’ Sales said Schweitzer never followed up on anything.
Schweitzer knew he had to get a deal before calling legislators back, or it would be repeat performance of the regular session.
The governor called some Republican moderates, including Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who told him, “Several of us would like to talk about some common ground.’’
Jones agreed to bring some other Republican moderates, plus at least one conservative, to meet with Schweitzer’s chief of staff, budget director, revenue director and education adviser at Ward’s lodge. They divided into “pods,’’ with each group working on one topic: budget, taxes, school funding and energy.
“I purposely didn’t go there,’’ said Schweitzer, who traveled to the Kentucky Derby for a Democratic Governors Association fund-raiser. “I needed to be somewhere away. I didn’t want to have an overbearing presence.’’
In the end, Schweitzer is mostly pleased with what the special session did.
“Llew Jones and John Ward are tough negotiators,’’ he said. “They got more done in a couple of days than the rest of the caucus got done in 85. When you shake hands with Llew Jones and John Ward, there’s no question what you’ve got.’’
Because of the deal, $30 million in general fund spending requests was chopped from the budget passed by the Senate, including $10 million from the Corrections Department and $4 million from the Revenue Department. The way schools were funded was changed more to the Republicans’ liking.
In exchange, Schweitzer got the rest of the budget approved, his one-time, $400-per-household tax rebate and his “clean and green’’ energy bill. The House killed his ongoing plan to exempt from property taxes the first $80,000 of business equipment and pay for it by cracking down on alleged out-of-state tax cheaters.
Yet, Schweitzer said, “the things we came back to accomplish, we accomplished.’’
Jones couldn’t be reached Friday, but Ward said, “We didn’t get anywhere what we wanted. We certainly got more than we would have if we had not made the effort. We only had a one-vote majority in one House. I believe we leveraged that as far as we could.’’
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When asked if he is satisfied, Ward said, “Satisfied is way too strong. It was time to be done. Some good things, from my perspective, came out of it. Obviously, I believe the governor got a lot more. He had two (the governor’s office and the Senate) of the three power centers.’’
Ward expects the “Monday morning quarterbacks’’ from the right and left to attack the deal. There are some representatives on both sides “who believe that you should tilt at windmills until the windmill kills them,’’ he said.
The Helena Republican is no Don Quixote.
“I am not at all displeased that we made the effort up there,’’ Ward said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it.’’
House Speaker Sales, however, believe Schweitzer’s staff snookered the Republican moderates at Ward’s lodge. Schweitzer got virtually everything he wanted, while Republicans wound up with scraps.
The deal “neutered us,’’ Sales said.
With a general fund surplus estimated at $1.4 billion, Sales is stunned that the Legislature and Schweitzer didn’t provide any ongoing property-tax cuts, except for $22 million in guaranteed tax base payments in school funding, while state spending rose by $800 million or by 22 percent over the last two years.
“We traded an awful lot for very little,’’ he said.
Political observers will be watching to see what happens to the House Republican moderates. Will they face primary challenges from the right, as moderate Rep. Bernie Olson, R-Bigfork, did when he lost in the 2006 primary?
Ward said that’s always a possibility, but he hopes not. However, he added, “It would be untrue for me to say that we’re not snarling at each other right now.’’
Sales said he won’t personally be involving in recruiting Republican primary challengers.
“There are some very upset people within our own caucus,’’ he said. “Stranger things have happened.’’
Schweitzer looks for “a hotly debated battle for the heart and soul of the Montana Republican Party’’ over the next year.
“Is it going to be the party of the (former Sens.) Royal Johnsons, John Bohlingers, Dale Mahlums and current Reps. Llew Jones, Bill Jones, John Ward and Jesse O’Hara, the people that understand there is a legitimate role for government? Schweitzer asked. ‘’Or is it going to be the party of the (Reps.) Scott Sales, John Sinruds and Scott Mendenhalls, the people that want to shut down government?
“Barry Goldwater wouldn’t recognize that wing of the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t.’’
Sales dismissed Schweitzer’s comments as “hogwash.’’
“It’s pure rhetoric,’’ Sales said. “It’s just trying to incite people. We didn’t try to cut government at all. All we tried to cut was the growth in increases to government so we could get more back to the people who paid it in.’’
Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He may be reached at (800) 525-4920 or 443-4920. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.