How much is one legislator's vote worth? In Montana, the price can reach as high as $3 billion.

Montana's 100-seat House is almost evenly divided. Republicans hold 50 seats, Democrats 49. The remaining seat is occupied by Rick Jore, a member of the Constitution Party. To keep his swing vote on their side and their majority intact, Republicans have to give Jore just about everything he asks for. And he asks for quite a bit.

This spring, that included enormous reductions in one of the major budget bills funding health. At one point, instead of sticking with the $3 billion baseline, Republicans placated Jore by proposing a token $300. In the end, they cut $179 million.

"Quite frankly, they had to get my vote to get their budget bills passed," says Jore. "What I conveyed to the Republicans is I have a hard time voting for those budgets when they include funding that I view as not only excessive but unconstitutional."

Jore, who is 50 years old, was elected three times as a Republican but left the party in 1999, complaining that it had lost its way on taxes and the size of government. He twice was narrowly defeated as a Constitution candidate, finally succeeding in his third attempt last November.

The sort of leverage he has would lead many to seek extra spending for pet projects. Not in his case. Jore wants to use his power to scale back government, not expand it. He once testified against a government loan to save a company founded by his brothers, calling it a "socialist concept."

Jore doesn't like much that government does. His libertarian streak, however, does not extend to social issues. He wants judges to find fault in divorce cases and financially penalize the guiltier party. He also sponsored legislation to grant legal rights to fetuses. When an opponent warned this could lead to criminal investigations into miscarriages, Jore said that was only in keeping with the need to investigate all suspicious deaths in the state.

But he remains a real skeptic when it comes to public education. A home-schooling parent, Jore has tried for a decade to end the requirement that children attend public schools. He says such a policy implies that they are under the control of the state, rather than their parents and guardians. His bill to end compulsory attendance failed again this year, but Jore has had an impact on other education policy, helping, for example, to kill Governor Brian Schweitzer's proposal for all-day kindergarten for Montana children.

He was able to do that because he holds the chairmanship of the Education Committee. It's a plum perk in recognition of his swing status, but the education community still finds it difficult to get over what has happened. "The Republican leadership in the House," complains Linda McCulloch, the state superintendent of public instruction, "named as chair a person who is outspoken about not liking public education."