Montana Viewpoint

March 18, 2001

Senator Greg Jergeson, D–Chinook, got up to address an issue on the Senate floor a couple of days ago. It was a pretty obscure, but important, topic having to do with the way a portion of the budget works, and I remember wondering how we were ever going to replace his knowledge when he leaves the Senate next year. I don´t like term limits, and I didn´t vote for them, but I didn´t think that it would make much of a difference one way or another until I got back into the Legislature.

Jergeson spent 20 years on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee working on Montana´s budget. That´s a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge we will no longer have working for us in Montana. Then I looked around the Senate floor and began tallying a list of those who would be gone next session because of term limits. It´s a long list, with a wealth of know-how, both Republican and Democratic. In the 2003 Legislature, there will be only 13 people out of 150 with more than 10 years experience in government. Quite frankly, I began to feel a little inadequate, and began to plan how I could go about doubling my intake of knowledge.

Some would say that term limits have been beneficial, and they have a point. It did get rid of some deadwood and some ineffective legislators, but it also got rid of some extremely competent people. Four–time Speaker of the House John Mercer, R–Polson, leaps immediately to mind. He was ruthless, he was Machiavellian, he was sure of himself, and he was the most effective Speaker Montana ever had. Make no mistake about it, whether you think Montana is better or worse off after eight years of Republican domination, Mercer gets all the credit.

He came to each session with a plan of how the state would be budgeted, what taxes would be cut or raised, what issues would take center stage, and when the session was over, he triumphed. He was more influential and important in setting state policy than anyone else in government, including Governor Racicot. Racicot may have gotten the credit, but Mercer did the job, and he did it without asking anyone if it was OK with them.

I don´t miss those days, largely because I disagreed with Mercer about what our state needed. I do, however, miss the organization and the ability to lead. It´s not there now. In both the Senate and House there is a noticeable and lamentable lack of plan or purpose. Montana is facing its biggest problems in memory, but they are being addressed in a haphazard, “maybe this will work” way. I was told by a friend of mine who served 16 years as a Republican State Representative before moving to the Senate this year that there is no plan by Republicans to address the issues of deregulation, job loss, or school funding. That´s bad.

You might wonder why a member of the opposite party would worry about that. Well, as outnumbered as Democrats are, any ideas we have will take a back seat to a Republican idea. So, for the good of the state, I´d sure like them to have a plan. As a member of the “loyal opposition,” it´s hard to constructively critique something that doesn´t exist. The best we could say, as Mercer did many times when he was Minority Leader, would be, “what´s your plan?”

The state benefits from strong legislative leaders. They don´t just set the agenda, they shape the argument and thinking about how to change Montana for the better. Not everyone will agree with them, but at least there´s a central argument to discuss. Term limits rob us of that leadership both in the sense of practical ability to lead and in depth knowledge of issues. We want citizen legislators in Montana, but we don´t necessarily want a bunch of relative greenhorns running the show. In Montana, term limits restrict a legislator to no more than eight years in one legislative body. With 90–day sessions only every other year, that´s a maximum of 360 days of legislative experience per legislator. Business wouldn´t give experienced workers the boot, and we shouldn´t either, but we´ve got it, and we´ll have to learn to work with it.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620