Montanans generally disapproved of overall performance, but say lawmakers did better with several major issues

HELENA - Montanans gave the 2001 Legislature solidly low marks but were more generous in evaluating how the legislators handled several major issues, a new poll shows.

Of the 625 Montanans surveyed, only 27 percent gave the Legislature a positive performance rating. Fifty-eight percent responded negatively, and the remaining 15 percent were undecided.

Within the positive responses, 3 percent said the Legislature's performance was "excellent," and 24 percent said it was "good." Among the negative responses, 31 percent ranked the Legislature "only fair," and 27 percent ranked it "poor."

Lee Newspapers commissioned the poll of 308 men and 317 women, which was conducted April 30 through May 2 by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Although the numbers indicate people aren't entirely happy with the Republican-controlled Legislature, Republicans may still hold favor among Montanans.

Forty-six percent of those polled said they would vote for a Republican if the 2002 election for their state House and Senate seats were held today. Only 32 percent said they would vote for a Democrat. Twenty-two percent said they were still undecided, leaving some room for a political shift.

There is no doubt, however, that those polled think the Legislature can handle the state's problems without becoming a professional, full-time body. Seventy percent said the issues have not become too complex for a part-time citizen Legislature, with 17 percent disagreeing and 13 percent undecided.

And voters continue to support limiting the number of years legislators can serve, with 61 percent opposing a constitutional amendment to repeal the term limits voters overwhelmingly approved in 1992. Thirty-three percent favor repealing term limits, while 6 percent were undecided. Approval for term limits has remained steady for nearly a year and a half. In a similar poll in December 2000, 61 percent of the respondents said they approved of term limits. Sixty-four percent approved in a poll taken in December 1999.

Among those who were sure about their opinions of how the 2001 Legislature dealt with school funding, the economy and the environment, most said they approved. But 11 percent to 17 percent of those polled said they were unsure, making it difficult to draw any clear conclusions.

The Legislature received the highest marks in its handling of public school and university system funding. Fifty-four percent said they approved, while 35 percent said they disapproved. Eleven percent were undecided.

Next was the economy and economic development, with 49 percent saying they approved of the Legislature's work and 34 percent disapproved, while 17 percent were undecided.

Those polled also indicated the state's economy is a concern, with only 75 percent giving it a below-average rating. Only 1 percent said the Montana economy is "excellent." Fifty percent said it is "only fair."

Last was the environment, with 45 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving - statistically, only a slight nod to the Legislature. The remaining 17 percent were undecided.

Women were less likely than men to say they approved of the Legislature's environmental decisions. And women were somewhat less likely to approve of the Legislature's school-funding decisions.

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