HELENA - The incoming Democratic speaker of the evenly divided Montana House said Tuesday he'll exercise sole authority for deciding committee chairs and assignments for the 2009 Legislature n a stance not going over well with Republicans.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, proposed Tuesday that the House operate under its current rules now and when it convenes Jan. 5, giving the speaker sole control over House committee assignments for the 2009 session.
Bergren said Republicans and Democrats each will chair the same number of committees and that membership on the committees will be evenly divided, reflecting the 50-50 party split in the House.
With Republicans controlling a 27-23 majority in the state Senate, Democrats see the state House as their potential corner of power in the 2009 Legislature n even though the body is split 50-50.
Bergren said he wants to choose committee members and chairs who are committed to working in a bipartisan way, pass a state budget and tackle other important problems facing the state.
"I'll operate with a fair and even hand," he said in an interview. "These are the same rules that Rep. (Scott) Sales operated with the last time."
Yet Sales, the Bozeman Republican and speaker of the House during the 2007 Legislature, operated under those rules when Republicans controlled an outright 51-49 majority, with the help of one Constitution Party member.
Sales said Tuesday because the House will be tied 50-50 between the parties at the 2009 Legislature, a new set of rules should be adopted that spell out how the parties will share power.
That's what House leaders did in 1985 and 2005, he said, when the House was also tied.
"It's tradition that the power would be shared," Sales said. "I don't think that it would be a start to a good, healthy working relationship if we're going to deviate off that tradition or precedent."
When asked why Republicans should agree to or accept the idea of the Democratic speaker operating under rules designed for majority control, Bergren said: "I guess they'll have to trust me. I look forward to working with these folks."
Rep. Scott Mendenhall of Clancy, the new Republican floor leader in the House, also said that Republicans felt they had a "gentlemen's agreement" last week to work on new rules to share power in the 2009 session.
"Under a tied house, there has never been a speaker-elect who has tried to exert this much power," Mendenhall said. "My hope is that he will, for the sake of starting this thing off on an even fair keel, reconsider and have fair rules. I think it cheats the voters of Montana to do otherwise."
Bergren said he plans to appoint committee members and chairs by the end of the week.