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Lieser Learns the Ropes
Whitefish Democrat discusses challenges of being a freshman in House dominated by Republicans
Rep. Ed Lieser addresses the House during the 63rd Legislative Assembly in Helena. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
HELENA – As the Flathead Valley’s only elected Democrat heading into a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, Whitefish’s Ed Lieser in some ways had the deck stacked against him before the 63rd Legislative Session even began.

But Lieser took on the role of House District 4 representative not as a man weighed down by improbabilities but rather as a newly elected public servant excited by the possibilities of representative democracy.

He spent long hours, seven days a week, researching and crafting legislation that he thought was sensible and, in some cases, can’t-miss. He focused on issues he believed to be relevant and practical, not ideological or political. And when the session began, he was ready to usher his bills all the way to the governor’s office, where they would be signed into law. That’s how he imagined it, at least.

Two months later, at the halfway point of the Legislature, Lieser has only two bills out of 16 still alive: one as a placeholder and another that has been transmitted to the Senate after passing the House. Thirteen others either died in the legislative process or were never introduced, and aren’t going to be either. One other – a proposal to rename “agriculture” in the state schools program account as “agriculture literacy” – passed out of both chambers and was signed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

“I went into this really optimistic,” Lieser said. “I had a bunch of bills, maybe too many. And it was legislation that I really think could have helped some people.”

Lieser, 63, is a retired forester with the U.S. Forest Service and today runs a forestry consulting business. He defeated Republican Tim Baldwin, a Kalispell attorney, in November’s general election to reclaim Whitefish’s House seat for the Democrats. Republican Derek Skees vacated the position to run for state auditor. Before Skees, Democrat Mike Jopek had held the seat for three straight terms but decided not to run for a fourth.

A citizen Legislature like Montana’s has plenty of people like Lieser who aren’t polished politicians but ordinary folks who go to Helena trying to do something good for their community and state. But with 150 legislators in the Senate and House, all trying to get their ideas to rise to the top, it’s not always easy making your voice heard, especially when you’re in the 61-39 minority, as Lieser points out.

Moreover, Lieser has also had to grapple with his newcomer status. He doesn’t know a lot of people in Helena and that means more than outsiders might understand.

“I don’t have those relationships that a lot of the other legislators have,” he said. “That’s important.”

Among the bills for which Lieser is either listed as primary sponsor or as the requester are measures to include naturopaths as health providers in unemployment insurance law, require septic inspections before property transfers, revise fines for lakeshore protection violations and provide procedures for nonprofit hospitals to convert to other statuses.

Lieser also put forth bills to revise eminent domain laws, create a dormant mineral interests act and provide tax incentives for landowner fire fuels reduction.

His bill to increase pension benefits for volunteer firefighters passed out of the House on Feb. 25 with a 76-22 vote. Lieser, who is a member of the Whitefish Fire Service Area board, said he has worked with former Whitefish Republican state Sen. Bob DePratu on the legislation.

Lieser said it’s important to note the proposal is in no way connected to the state pension fund but instead addresses locally funded relief funds strictly for volunteer firefighters and decided upon by local fire association boards and city governments.

“We’re losing volunteer firefighters and they’re not staying until it’s time to retire,” Lieser said. “We need to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. Maybe the culture has changed, but people just aren’t as interested in it anymore.”

Lieser added that pension benefits are “well-deserved.”

“The sacrifices they make are profound,” he said.

Lieser has also requested a placeholder bill to revise aquatic invasive species laws. That proposal could still go somewhere, and Lieser says the issue of combating invasive species has the support of the governor and both parties.

In the absence of a full slate of his own bills, Lieser said he will spend much of the second half of the session learning more about the legislative process and rooting for bills he supports, including a bill from Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, to create “circuit breakers” for property tax relief.

“As the session goes on, hopefully I’ll be able to find my voice and continue to contribute,” Lieser said. “I’ve learned a ton. I’ve made some mistakes. Hopefully I’ll have learned from those mistakes and I can be more successful in the future.”
 
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