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Session broadens new rep's horizons

| March 6, 2007 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

The first half of his first session in the Montana Legislature has been "a horizon-broadening experience," for Rep. Chas Vincent.

"Compartmentalizing and networking is the way to get things done over there," Vincent said. "And that takes open-mindedness."

The trick is keeping an open mind to others' perceptions while remaining true to one's own principles, Vincent said.

"You hear about things maybe you hadn't taken into consideration, so maybe your perceptions change," he said.

A Republican from Libby, Vincent represents District 2 in the Montana House of Representatives. Serving on the Taxation, Natural Resources, and Fish, Wildlife and Parks committees has brought on a steep learning curve, Vincent said.

"Right when a guy thinks he has something figured out, he finds there's two or three more things he didn't know about," he said.

Vincent is carrying a bill to provide support for the Libby Asbestos Medical Plan, which was initially funded by a $2.75 million court settlement between the Environmental Protection Agency and W.R. Grace over access issues. The bill made it out of committee by a "squeaky vote," Vincent said, but funding was cut from $3 million to $2 million. Vincent is hopeful the bill will make it out of the House in the second half of the session and on to the Senate, where he would speak in support of it.

A pair of Republican proposals to revamp educational funding is "the most exciting thing I have seen as far as affecting Lincoln County," Vincent said.

Both bills would switch the primary source of education funding from property taxes to the general fund, which is supported by income tax dollars, Vincent said. One of the bills would keep funding at the current level while the other would increase funding by $250 million. A compromise somewhere in the middle is likely, Vincent said.

Vincent said he believes all-day kindergarten works, but he opposes a proposal to earmark $100 million specifically for that program. The proposal has drawn opposition from both very small and very large school districts because it would not provide enough funding in their systems, Vincent said.

"The educational community is split right down the middle on this," he said.

The Republican proposals to change school funding would allow districts to fund all-day kindergarten on their own if they so choose, Vincent said.

Vincent is also excited about a pair of mining bills, both being carried by Democrats.

The first is a result of a compact between the Montana Mining Association and the state Department of Environmental Quality and would streamline the permitting process by allowing interim bonding, Vincent said. The bill would make Montana "more inviting" for investors in mines, he said.

The second bill would allow DEQ to hire contractors - at industry's expense - to work on permitting issues. The bill is intended to allow the process to move faster and help prevent permits from getting bogged down in the state bureaucracy.

Because they are sponsored by Democrats, the bills may have an advantage in the Senate, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 26-24. In the House, there are 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and one Constitution Party representative.

If the mining bills make it through the Legislature, they should have the support of Gov. Brian Schweitzer if Schweitzer is true to his promises, Vincent said.

"If Montana is truly 'open for business,' then Montana needs these tools to keep the lights on," Vincent said.