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Montana statesmen among us

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 10:33 am

Statecraft is the art of creating workable solutions to public problems. Masters of this craft are statesmen and women. Montana has produced some great ones, and we continue to today. Notable examples are Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and Montana Redistricting and Apportionment Commission Chair Jim Regnier.

In any era, in or out of the realm of politics, few are they with the vision and ability to conceptualize and implement big, bold fresh ideas. Sen. Jones can do this. His idea for dramatically reinventing how we fund public education is an example. That Jones’ complex and far reaching Senate Bill 175 appears to have a good chance of being crafted into state law is also a tribute to his masterful political skills.

SB175 increases funding for Montana schools by about $75 million and reduces local school property taxes by about $40 million. That’s right. A big increase for education and a big cut in taxes at the same time. And the bill ties educational quality to increased funding levels by offering new provisions to more accurately track student achievement.

The Jones bill begins by prioritizing the needs of oil and gas impact area schools and then shares oil and gas revenue over and above that amount with the rest of the state by an innovative procedure that assures that oil and gas taxes will always be collected well in advance of when they can be redistributed.

A determined fighter for his beliefs, Jones has no difficulty accommodating criticism if it can improve his legislation. Reflecting that, he agreed to significant amendments in steering SB175 through the Senate Education committee by a remarkable 10-0 vote. That’s right. All the Democrats and all the Republicans gave the lie to the old quip that everybody’s for reform as long as it doesn’t change anything.

SB175 is real reform that would make major and positive change in a vital part of Montana law affecting nearly every Montanan.

Ironically, the gifted architect of this reform will not be back in the legislature after this session. Though there is a remote chance that their final draft might still be altered, the Apportionment Commission has completed its work leaving Jones without a district and therefore ineligible to run for re-election when his term in his Conrad area constituency expires next year.

Jones not withstanding, though, the current commission has done remarkably well in its extremely and inherently controversial job. The process of redrawing legislative district lines to reflect changes in state population after each decennial census is frequently taken unfair advantage of by either political party. This is known in the lexicon of politics as “gerrymandering.”

This year, thanks importantly to the firm, fair, mediation skills and forthright leadership of commission chair and former Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier, the districting plan gives no advantage to either political party. And the politically divided commission approved the plan unanimously.

Inevitably the process of redistricting results in unfortunate outcomes, as in the case of Jones. Predictably there has been some grousing, with Republicans using their legislative majorities to direct their complaints formally to the commission.

Term limits prevent today’s Republicans from remembering the party-line gerrymandering a decade ago. Chairman Regnier could simply have cast his lot with one party or the other, as past commission chairs have done. He definitely didn’t do that. The Republicans got as fair a deal as the Democrats.

The fine examples of Llew Jones and Jim Regnier prove our state remains a place for statesmen.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.

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