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Legislative session eye-opening for Heinert

| March 1, 2005 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

The ongoing legislative session in Helena has been an eye-opening experience for freshman Rep. Ralph Heinert of Libby.

"Probably the thing that's impressed me the most is the process," he said. "The process really works."

Heinert said he's been as critical of the state government as anyone, but halfway through his first session, he's amazed at how much actually gets done in a 90-day period every other year.

"I thought I would have more free time," he said. "My day starts at 6:30 in the morning; it gets over, if I'm lucky, at 7 or 8 o'clock at night."

Heinert said he's also starting to rethink the wisdom of term limits. He said he's starting to see the value of experience and continuity in a part-time legislative body.

A Republican, Heinert serves on the Natural Resources, Business and Labor and Agriculture committees. He said he's dedicated to doing what he can to help ease the proposed Montanore Mine on the edge of the Cabinet Mountains south of Libby through the permitting process.

"As far as I'm concerned that's probably the most important thing that I can help Libby with," he said.

Heinert said he wants to set up regular meetings with Department of Environmental Quality officials and other legislators to keep a dialogue open and see what the Legislature can do to expedite the process of reviving the mothballed mine proposal.

"It just befuddles me that we could be talking as much as 20 months to go through a permit that has already been approved," he said.

Another big issue for Heinert and the rest of the Legislature is school funding. Heinert said he's concerned that a pending bill usurps too much authority from local school boards in an attempt to lay out standards for a "quality education" for the state. He said the state needs to fund the infrastructure necessary for quality schools while not taking away local autonomy.

Balancing the state budget will be another major task, Heinert said. Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed budget calls for an increase in spending of $439 million, outstripping the $300 million surplus the state had going into the session by $139 million, Heinert said.

Heinert said he won't support any of the various tax increases that have been proposed, including new taxes on beer, soda pop and "big box" retail stores and tax hikes on business equipment and casinos.

"Part of what I campaigned for was to not increase taxes on folks in our district," he said.

The session is scheduled to run through April 23. Heinert is optimistic that by then the Legislature will have done its job and the system will have worked.

"Hopefully through the process you get more good bills out than bad ones, and you stop the bad ones from getting through," he said.

Heinert can be reached by calling 444-4800, emailing or by writing to Representative Ralph Heinert, Helena, MT 59620-0400.