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NEWS ANALYSIS: Montana's GOP legislators gaining national attention

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The Militia of Montana is but a fading memory.

The Freemen? Forgotten.

Unabomber? Yawn.

In recent years, Montana finally seemed to be ceding its national-stereotype status as a place where renegades run amok. Other states jostled for position. Arizona, where a new immigration law caused a wide-ranging ruckus, was a contender until tragedy struck. Texas and California are perennial favorites.

Montana was close, so tantalizingly close, to what the rest of the country seems to view as sanity. Then - bang! The gavel sounded for the 2011 Legislature. Cue the whimper.

National scrutiny is again focused on Montana, this time because of proposals before the Legislature. Those include a collection of bills to nullify federal legislation, including the Endangered Species Act, as well as a "birther" bill to require state-mandated proof of citizenship for presidential candidates; bills to smack down locally approved ordinances on marijuana and protections for gay people (take that, Missoula); and let's not forget the bill that would have made county sheriffs the supreme authority.

How you view them largely depends on whether you drink tea at your parties.

November's election results, nationally as well as in Montana, mandate such "nullification" measures, said Roger Nummerdor Jr. of Helena, a board member of the Big Sky Tea Party Association. "People are tired of government overspending, tired of fiscal responsibility and tired of not having the Constitution followed."

But Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer last week blasted as "un-American" the proposals to invalidate federal authority.

And Republican Rep. Walt McNutt of Sidney said that never in the eight times he's campaigned for office have constituents told him state sovereignty is their most important concern.

"You're scaring the be-you-know-what out of them with this kind of talk," McNutt said last week in House floor comments on a resolution declaring state sovereignty.

"We've heard enough this session," McNutt said. "I say stop here. Quit scaring our constituents and quit letting us look like a bunch of buffoons."

The House approved the resolution 53-45.

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Measures dealing with nullification, social issues such as abortion and sexual orientation, and gun rights - including one in South Dakota to mandate gun ownership for people over 21 - are being considered by legislatures around the country.

But the number of bills and the scope of their range sets Montana apart, said University of Montana political scientist James Lopach.

"I'd say it's radical," he said. "Radical in the sense of the original meaning of the word of going to the roots, striking at the roots."

With solid majorities of 68-32 in the House and 28-22 in the Senate, Republicans "are taking on just an unbelievable array of opponents," he said.

"They're taking on cities and the electorate in terms of past initiatives. They're taking on the governor in terms of (revenue) estimates. They're taking on the Congress, the president, the Supreme Court, even past sessions. ... It just seems like they really feel that it is their responsibility to right the errors of the past."

And, in the process, swinging that national spotlight back toward the state.

Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, rendered CNN's Anderson Cooper momentarily speechless during a recent discussion of Wagner's "birther" bill - tabled in committee - that would have required presidential candidates to supply proof of citizenship, and that would have let states set the terms of that proof.

Cooper cited proof, showing the documents onscreen, that President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen.

"That's your opinion," Wagner said.

YouTube lit up with clips of the interview, with titles ranging from " ‘Birther' Bob Wagner Hangs Self With Own Rope" to "Liberals Panic Over Birth Certificate Fraud."

Montana was front and center of the online magazine Slate.com's feature about state proposals to return to the gold standard (also sponsored by Wagner, and still in committee). "It sounds ridiculous," Slate's Annie Lowrey wrote. "It is ridiculous."

And Salon.com took a swipe at Montana in a "Tea Partyers Gone Wild!" story outlining nine of the "wildest, most zany" proposals in legislatures around the country. Montana counted for two of the nine, with its nullification proposals and one by Republican Rep. Joe Read of Ronan that states global warming "is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana." That bill was tabled in committee last week.

Another difference between the legislative ferment in Montana and that in other states is that the latter is more driven by money as most states struggle with budget deficits, Lopach said. Montana remains one of the few states whose budgets are in the black, so lawmakers can focus more on ideology, he said.

Montana State University-Billings pollster and political science professor Craig Wilson said that ideology might not be backed up by the courts.

"When you have a division of power between the national government and the states, as (the law) has evolved, the national government is more powerful, often through the power of the purse," he said.

Besides, many of the attention-getting bills are moving from the House to the Senate, with its narrower margins, and even if that body approves them, Schweitzer has vowed to veto several bills.

"The Senate is going to change some of this, kill some of that, and Schweitzer absolutely will veto" some bills, Wilson said.

"In the end, they will have scored points," he said. "But I don't think they're going to win the game."

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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