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Democrats praise bipartisanship during first half of session

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It's the halfway mark for the state Legislature, and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate gave the Legislature generally favorable reviews Wednesday on a trip through Missoula.

But Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, and Rep. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said the credit for good work doesn't go solely to Democrats, who control the Senate and preside over an evenly split House.

"We all have Montana in our mailing addresses," said Senate President Tester.

Wanzenried, Democratic leader in the House, said that partisan bickering hasn't really stopped the House from moving ahead with important legislation like the new pay plan for state workers.

"That really hasn't happened much," he said "Š I think it demonstrates that if we can put aside the partisan stuff, we can do some good work."

Tester pointed to a string of bills as evidence of the Senate's solid first half:

n The new pay plan for state employees.

n A new definition for quality education and a commitment to provide $70 million more for primary and secondary education funding during the next two years.

n A plan to offer a prescription drug benefit for the elderly and poor who fall under certain federal poverty levels.

n A proposal to require energy providers to obtain percentages of their power from renewable sources.

"Industry doesn't like that one, but it's time for a change," Tester said.

Both Tester and Wanzenried said health care is a critical issue facing the Legislature and the state now.

"About 178,000 Montanans have no health insurance," Wanzenried said. "We can't let that continue to happen Š Those people don't get preventative care and that costs all of us."

Tester said the money committed to education is a "good start," but won't be sufficient over time.

"I think we'll probably still need money for K-12 next year," he said, noting that work on a new formula for education funding continues in a Senate committee.

Wanzenried also pointed to a House bill that would create a $20 million, seed-money fund for economic development within the state's $700 million coal tax trust fund. That fund is a centerpiece of Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's plan to improve the state's economy.

Both men lauded the governor for providing a fresh vision in Helena and a willingness to work with the Legislature.

"I think he's done a good job laying out a pretty solid vision," said Tester.

They said the governor's been a common sight at the Legislature, testifying on behalf of bills he supports and making himself available for policy discussions.

"He's not only gregarious, but he knows how to get stuff done," said Wanzenried.

Despite the Legislature's productive first half - they finished the first half a day early - Wanzenried and Tester said challenges remain. In addition to the probable need to provide additional education funding, Tester said it's not possible given the state's budget to make the sort of sweeping health care changes the state needs.

"There will be health care things we can't get done," Tester said. "Š But we have to show some fiscal responsibility and the budget has to be lean and mean."

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