HELENA — It started with a few phone calls among House Republicans unhappy with the bitter, stalemated ending to the 2007 Legislature’s regular session two weeks ago.
It culminated last weekend at a private, log-wall lodge in the woods west of Helena, where Schweitzer administration officials and 13 Republican lawmakers met and hammered out the compromise that could be the basis for tax cuts, a state budget and energy policy approved by the special session that began Thursday.
“A group of people got up in the morning, looked at themselves in the mirror and said ‘We want to be part of the solution,’ ’’ said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who helped put together the weekend meeting.
They emerged with what Jones on Thursday called ’’common ground,’’ but what no one is calling a ’’deal.’’
It includes $230 million in tax cuts over the next two years, nearly $50 million less in spending endorsed by the Democrat-controlled Senate in the regular session, more state money for public schools, and — perhaps most importantly — a tax- incentive bill that Republicans say could help fire up coal and other energy production in eastern Montana.
Republican House Majority Leader Michael Lange of Billings, who attended the weekend meeting, said no one expects the agreement to be approved without changes during the special session.
But support from this core group of House Republicans is key to approve any compromise at the closely divided Montana Legislature.
Republicans effectively control a 51-49 edge in the House, while Democrats hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate.
In the final days of the regular session, which ended April 27, all 50 Republicans and Constitution Party Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan held firm on refusing to pass budget or tax bills they said did not provided enough in tax cuts.
With the state treasury enjoying a $1 billion surplus over the next two years, at least $300 million in tax cuts should be a minimum, said House Republican leaders.
Their refusal to accept the budget passed by the Senate led to the adjournment without a state budget for the next two years, forcing the special session.
Yet while House Republicans as a whole said ’’no’’ to the budget, some of their members began talking privately, saying they couldn’t just say no, but instead had to find a compromise that could get through the Legislature.
“You’ve got to have a dialogue,’’ said Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who took part in the meeting. “We can’t expect to have anything done up here if we don’t have a dialogue.’’
After a few days of exchanging phone calls and e-mails last week, an emerging group of House Republicans decided to meet with each other and the Schweitzer administration, to see if they could broker a deal.
Lawmakers wanted to meet somewhere away from the Capitol, where they wouldn’t be interrupted or found out by lobbyists or the media.
Rep. John Ward, R-Helena, offered his five-room, log-wall lodge, which is up Mullan Pass Road, about 20 miles west of Helena.
Some lawmakers showed up at the lodge last Friday night, meeting into the evening. On Saturday, 13 House Republicans were at the lodge: Jones, Olson, Lange, Ward and Reps. Edith Clark of Sweetgrass, Tom McGillvray and Elsie Arntzen of Billings, Gary Maclaren of Victor, Wayne Stahl of Saco, Jesse O’Hara of Great Falls, Carol Lambert of Broadus, Bill Nooney of Missoula and Walter McNutt of Sidney.
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The Schweitzer administration contingent that arrived Saturday included Budget Director David Ewer, chief of staff Bruce Nelson, chief policy adviser Hal Harper, attorney Ann Brodsky, education adviser Jan Lombardi and Deputy Revenue Director Dave Hunter.
Ward arranged to have food brought to the all-day meeting, including a six-foot Hoagie sandwich.
By day’s end, they had the framework of a bargain DASH and the promise to deliver enough Republican votes to get it past the House, assuming support from most if not all of the 49 House Democrats.
“We didn’t really say we all agreed,’’ said Stahl. “We said, ‘Here’s how we can work out things to get to an end.’
“Not everyone got everything they wanted. A wise man once told me if everyone’s not happy, it’s probably good legislation.’’
“Sometimes when you have an impasse, when you bring in new faces to the same problems, you get solutions,’’ added Nooney.
Conspicuously absent was House Speaker Scott Sales, the highest-ranking Republican in the House.
Sales said later he wasn’t invited. Those at the meeting said they wanted people there who were willing to negotiate. Sales, an outspoken conservative, has been adamant in his call for deeper spending reductions and longer-term tax cuts.
As the special session got under way Thursday morning, Sales addressed fellow House Republicans. He said he recognized the weekend meeting as a “good-faith effort’’ to reach a compromise, although he didn’t authorize it or support it.
Yet Sales said he wouldn’t be pressuring anyone to vote against it: “I want you to vote your conscience, I want you to vote your constituents, and then you can vote (for your party).’’
While Sales wasn’t part of the weekend meeting, its participants said without his leadership and hard line during the regular session, Republicans wouldn’t have been in a good position to negotiate for some longer-term tax cuts.
“The (Schweitzer) administration knew they weren’t going to break us,’’ Lange said. “We held 50 votes for 90 days.’’
Some House Republican members on Thursday denounced the weekend agreement, labeling it a cave-in to Schweitzer’s spending and tax-cut proposals.
“This is an historic increase and expansion of government,’’ said Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred. “And the future taxpayers have to keep picking this up.’’
Jones, however, told fellow Republicans Thursday morning that there had been some give-and-take — and that’s why it’s called a compromise.
“Is the common ground acceptable to everyone?’’ he asked. “I don’t know. But it’s acceptable to me. I hope at the end of these few days, it becomes common ground that a majority of legislators can accept.’’