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HELENA - Montana voters gave poor marks to the recently adjourned 2003 Legislature, a new Lee Newspapers poll shows.

Only 27 percent of those surveyed gave the Republican-controlled Legislature positive job performance marks, while 70 percent rated it negatively, the poll showed.

"These ratings are typical and may be a little below average," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C., whose company did the poll. "They're nothing to write home about. They're not horrible either."

The Legislature convened in January facing a projected $232 million budget in mid-2005. Lawmakers balanced the budget and filled the deficit using a combination of budget cuts, tax increases, funding shifts and one-time money to do the job. Lawmakers and lobbyists alike rated the 2003 session as one of the most difficult and contentious in years.

Voters polled also were asked to indicate which political party - Democrats or Republicans - did the best job representing their interests on a series of issues.

More respondents gave Democrats higher marks for funding K-12 schools; funding human service programs for the poor, disabled and elderly; funding the Montana university system; "looking out for my family's interests"; and protecting the environment.

And more of those surveyed said Republicans did the better job representing their views on holding the line on state spending and tax increases and trying to improve the economy.

On another question, Democrats appear to have closed their near-decade legislative gap in the Lee Newspapers poll. This poll regularly asks Montanans, if the election were held today for state representative, would they vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate.

The recent poll showed 40 percent said they would vote for the Democratic candidate for the state House, while 40 percent said they would vote for the Republican candidate, with 20 percent were undecided. Women are stronger supporters of Democratic state House candidates than are men - 44 percent to 36 percent. And men are stronger backers of Republican House candidates - 46 percent to 34 percent than are women.

That's the best Democratic showing on this particular question in the Lee poll since May 1997 when 38 percent of those polled said they would vote for the Democratic candidate for state House, and 37 percent said they'd cast their vote for the Republican.

Since this question was first asked in April 1995, Montanans have picked Republicans in 11 of the 12 previous polls, although sometimes by narrow margins but others by double-digit leads. Republicans have controlled the Montana Legislature since 1995.

"I don't know if that reflects fallout from the legislative session for Republicans and (Republican Gov. Judy) Martz dragging them down as well," pollster Coker said.

Mason-Dixon's telephone survey, taken May 16-19, interviewed 625 Montanans who said they were registered voters and vote regularly in state elections. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Here's a closer look at some of the questions:

- Legislature job performance. The telephone poll asked Montana voters to rate the performance of the Legislature into these four categories: "excellent," "pretty good," "only fair" or "poor." The "excellent" and "pretty good" marks are combined for a positive score, while the "only fair" and "poor" ratings are added get the negative score.

On the positive side, 2 percent gave the Legislature "excellent" marks, while 25 percent rated it as "pretty good." As for the negative, 40 percent called the session "only fair" and 30 percent judged it to be "poor." Three percent were undecided.

Women gave the Legislature better marks than men did. Thirty-six percent of women rated the Legislature's job performance as positive, while only 18 percent of men did. Likewise, men were more critical, with 78 percent of them giving the Legislature a negative job rating, while 62 percent of women scored it negatively.

- Best job. Poll respondents were asked whether Democrats or Republicans did the best job representing their views on these issues during the legislative session. Here are the questions and the responses.

Funding K-12 schools? Democrats, 40 percent; Republicans, 23 percent; and either none or don't know, 37 percent.

Holding the line on state spending and tax increases? Republicans, 38 percent; Democrats, 30 percent; and either none or don't know, 32 percent.

Funding human services programs for the poor, disabled and elderly? Democrats, 41 percent; Republicans 22 percent; and none or don't know, 37 percent.

Funding the Montana university system? Democrats, 35 percent; Republicans, 24 percent; and none or don't know, 41 percent.

Trying to improve the economy? Republicans, 34 percent; Democrats, 29 percent; and none or don't know, 37 percent.

Looking out for my family's interests? Democrats, 37 percent; Republicans, 31 percent; and none or don't know, 32 percent.

Protecting the environment? Democrats, 41 percent; Republicans, 24 percent; and none or don't know, 35 percent.

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