A former pastor and member of the Faith Chapel Church in Billings, Tom McGillvray, is once again demonstrating what true Christian charity means to some people. McGillvray, the Republican majority leader of the Montana House of Representatives, has again introduced legislation specifically targeting the very poorest among us at a time when many are unemployed and forming long lines at local food banks throughout the state. In the beginning of the 2011 session, this good Christian led a proposal designed to block implementation of 2010’s federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in Montana—even though he enjoys taxpayer-funded health care.
Now once again the good Christian has decided the poor have it much too good. He has introduced House Bill 596, which would abolish income tax in the state for those who actually have taxable income, and replace it with the most regressive tax there is on those who do not: the unemployed and the poor. Although McGillvray freely admits this switch would not significantly improve the state’s fiscal situation; it would, however, certainly benefit McGillvray. As a partner in the Billings financial planning firm McGillvray, Kallem and Hackmann, McGillvray believes it only fair that the state of Montana not continue to require him to pay state income taxes, and under his leadership, the state can make up for this loss of revenue by placing a new tax on food, clothing, gasoline and all the other basic necessities of life.
Watching McGillvray do his work in the House really does make one wonder what it is they teach there at the Faith Chapel Church in Billings.
I agree with David Stalling that the increase in exotic plants on Montana’s rangelands is distressing (see “War on weeds,” March 24, 2011). However, calling grassland conservation efforts the “war on weeds” and referring to exotic plants as “botanical barbarians” is naïve at best and may actually be fooling us into thinking we’re doing the right thing. In many cases the alarming increase in exotic plants is due to disturbance and unenlightened management, not evildoer plants. Thirty years ago, Richard Mack at Washington State University studied cheat grass and was one of the first to point out that grasslands west of the Great Plains did not evolve with herds of large herbivores and would be quickly converted to cheat grass under spring and summer grazing by domestic livestock. Tamarisk is replacing native cottonwoods across the semi-arid West not because it is so nasty and aggressive (it grows more slowly than cottonwood), but because man-made dams have decreased or eliminated the flood conditions required for cottonwood regeneration. In many cases exotic plants are not the big, bad villains; rather they are the messengers bringing the unfortunate news about our misguided stewardship.
We all agree that conserving native grasslands that provide a home for a diversity of wildflowers, birds, insects and animals is a laudable goal. Eradication of exotic plants through herbicide application and biological control is an important component of 21st Century grassland stewardship, but it is not the only or even the most important activity. Many articles in the scientific literature report that eliminating one exotic species via herbicide or biocontrol just results in domination by another exotic. Killing weeds and conservation are not the same thing. Our goal should be conservation. It’s always easier to have a well-defined enemy to vilify. The “war on weeds” gives us this enemy to focus on, and allows us to blame something other than ourselves for our problems. We do need to control exotic plants, but more importantly we need to pay more attention to how our own behavior contributes to our problems. Going to war is not the answer.
It is unfortunate that Rick Hill decided to use the tragedy in Japan to push another form of dirty energy (see “An occasion for coal,” March 24, 2011). As someone who lives and works in eastern Montana under the stacks of a coal-fired power plant, I take issue with several of Hill’s statements about America’s deadliest source of electricity: coal.
Hill was right about one thing. If we continue the push toward developing more coal, things are about to heat up in a big way. It’s not politics I’m talking about, however; it’s our climate. When not organizing for the Sierra Club, I run a small ranch. There are a few things you learn quickly when raising livestock. You need clean air, clean water and predictable weather patterns to be successful. Montana faces huge challenges as our climate changes. We cannot afford to lose our water and our agricultural lands to more coalmines, nor can we afford to let an industry continue to change the earth’s climate in order to fatten their bottom line. It’s simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. Arch Coal, a notorious union-busting coal company that owns the rights to mine the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana, saw its 2009 profits triple to $159 million in 2010.
Coal not only threatens Montana’s agricultural economy, it’s also downright dangerous. According to a recent study conducted by the Clean Air Task Force, particulate matter from coal plants like Colstrip and J.E Corrette in Billings kills approximately 24,000 Americans annually. Add to that the 2,000 miners who die annually from black lung disease and the tremendous effects of coal on America’s health becomes clear. It’s no wonder the Environmental Protection Agency is implementing common-sense emission standards to protect public health with the support of the American Lung Association.
Montana’s coal-producing counties have yet to see the endless prosperity that Hill and other snake oil salesmen have promised. In fact, all of Montana’s coal-producing counties have poverty rates above the state average, according to the most recent census data. Hucksters like Hill have long preyed on rural, poverty-stricken areas to benefit corporate powers like Arch Coal, leaving behind polluted water, moon-like landscapes and even more poverty. Otter Creek would be no different.
Real progress and prosperity for Montana lies in the clean energy potential of our state and a diversified economy that includes stable industries like agriculture, hunting and angling and manufacturing. A recent poll indicated that 62 percent of Montanans support state incentives for renewable energy and conservation. Basing our economy on extracting our raw natural resources will turn Montana into a commodity colony. It’s time to take a stand. We must not allow obstructionists like Hill to deny Montanans our place in the economy of tomorrow.
The heartbreaking tragedy in Japan has rightly brought concerns with nuclear energy into the public debate. And with those concerns with nuclear safety, some are predicting that we will see a greater interest in coal-fired energy.
While it’s true that coal demand will rise as nuclear becomes less popular, that increased interest in coal will also result in obstructionists becoming even more aggressive in trying to stop coal production. While coal power plants are safer and new technology has reduced the environmental impact of coal, their opponents never fail to seize on an opportunity to advance their agenda. If coal moves up the list of preferred energy sources, the stakes for the obstructionists get bigger.
Montana is incredibly well positioned to be a world leader in coal production. We lag woefully behind Wyoming in the amount of coal we dig, and some estimates indicate Montana has a 600-year supply at our current rate of extraction. So with all that potential in the ground, you can be assured that Montana will also be at the center of the obstructionists’ attempts to stop energy development.
One of my proudest accomplishments during my tenure in Congress was securing the Otter Creek coal tracts for Montana. Otter Creek represents a huge potential for new jobs and a tremendous amount of tax revenue for the state. And now we’re on the cusp of finally developing Otter Creek, but we’re also in danger of losing that opportunity if the opposition wins this fight. Attorney General Steve Bullock, who most Democrats predict will be their gubernatorial candidate next year, has sided with those opposing Otter Creek.
Montana has an enormous comparative advantage in natural resources, especially energy and particularly coal. Putting those resources to work is a clear path to increasing jobs, raising our per capita income, providing funding for education, and providing tax relief that will further fuel our economy. Our energy industry in Montana already provides thousands of jobs and contributes mightily to our tax base. But to grow means we need to expand our energy sector, through Otter Creek and elsewhere.
But there are those who would erect roadblocks on that path. This debate about Montana’s economic future is going to be one of the most important in recent history, and it’s about to heat up even more.
I voted for the Medical Marijuana Act and still support it today along with proposed restrictions that would ensure that only people who really need it would have access to it. Such restrictions could have been passed years ago by the increasingly inept Montana Legislature. So far this session, they have been too busy trying to secede from the union to give the issue much intelligent consideration.
In testimony before a legislative committee, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir compared medical marijuana to the recent massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. That statement would be laughable if it were not so illogical, inappropriate and offensive. A legislator in Helena, whose name I have thankfully forgotten, compared medical marijuana to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The folks in Helena appear to be partaking of some really strong stuff. Muir went on to tell City Council last Wednesday that “The idea of dispensaries in the state of Montana has got to be something we wash out of our minds.” I find this statement to be alarming. The suggestion of mind control and brain washing does not fill me with enthusiasm. This is redolent of the tin pot dictator in a banana republic police state.
House Bill 198 would increase the power of eminent domain to a class of people that never had that right before—non-public corporations that are not serving the needs of Montana residents (see “High tension,” March 17, 2011). HB 198 gives foreign and domestic private companies the right to condemn private property without fair and just negotiations with the landowners. This makes a mockery of our right to protect our property.
The backers of HB 198 are being very coy, trying to convince us that the bill really makes no change in longstanding law. But HB 198 expands the ability to condemn other people’s property. It uses the same logic that brought about the reviled Kelo decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
Our civil and property rights have diminished extensively during the last few years to the point where big-moneyed entities take precedence over our right to operate our farms and ranches that produce the food and fiber for people in the most efficient manner.
This bill is an attack on our existing way of life and our means of making a living as a family farming business. Senators, please stand up for agriculture, Montana’s No. 1 industry, by opposing HB 198.
Apparently the Legislature’s accepted wisdom about coal is that Montanans will be happy to tear up our state to send coal to China. If the aquifer is depleted or poisoned, if ranchland is rendered useless, if private property is condemned for infrastructure projects, if wildlife habitat is ruined, if the quality of our air deteriorates, if long coal trains disturb life in Montana communities, the Legislature appears to believe mining that coal for China is worth it.
Now, more than ever, citizens need the protection of the Montana Environmental Policy Act. MEPA requires state agencies to consider the effects of proposed activities on fish and wildlife, cultural resources and historic sites. The law also aims to make information available to the public and to hear what the public has to say. The point of MEPA is better decision making, and we should never lose sight of that.
Senate Bill 233 would undo that process by requiring a state agency to disregard information gathered through the MEPA process when making a decision about a permit or other state approval. Along the way, the bill would weaken the effect of citizen input into the process. SB 233 would ensure that the state is no longer standing up for its citizens when out-of-state companies want to extract coal and ship it across the Pacific Ocean.
Urge your legislators to vote no on SB 233, and ask the governor to act to save MEPA as it is.
Perhaps the whole effort to slow down, re-route, or even stop the big rigs is mistaken (see “Crossroads,” Jan. 20, 2011). I can still remember reading about the impatience of the Imperial Oil CEO to get his show on the road as, according to an article in the Missoulian some weeks ago, his company had filed all the necessary paperwork. In order to more fully dramatize the corporate take-over of our country, how about having a more elaborate parade of big rigs? Let’s be bold here and have the convoy of massive rigs roll imperially through our national parks, for starters. Why confine their travels to only a few miles of a beautiful and cherished scenic corridor? With a longer route compliant citizens, united by their fervor, could line the roads and exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to cheer the latest corporate endeavor. Oil executives and officials who have backed this proposal would certainly welcome the big rigs to their towns and even their neighborhoods. Of course, getting the big rigs into some of the gated communities might be tricky, but the major corporations have endless technical expertise in many areas as they’ve always reassured us. Financing a longer route shouldn’t be a problem as they could always withdraw funds from offshore tax havens to underwrite this parade. Exxon, for example, has paid very little of the damages legally assessed for the Exxon Valdez disaster, so it seems that they could conceivably finance this effort by themselves. If not Exxon, perhaps the Koch brothers could stealthily inject some cash into this project. If somehow losses ensued instead of profits, I’m sure that the now standard “socializing” of losses would protect the profit margins and executive bonuses of big energy.
Even more benefits could accrue with more exposure to more people. For example, the big rigs could be utilized for upcoming elections. Candidates’ names could be posted conspicuously on the massive sides to let us know directly whom to vote for. In solidarity, it seems to me, the elected officials who are so fond of giving tax breaks to big oil could provide an entourage while wearing corporate logos, a la NASCAR suits, to provide for greater transparency in the whole process. I’m sure that imaginative folks who truly care about advancing the corporate agenda will be able to suggest additional benefits that have not yet occurred to me.
While pondering this issue, I couldn’t help but think of folks like Rick Bass, David James Duncan and Steve Running. They absolutely deserve our respect because they are writers and activists who actually do serious research and discuss issues in a thoughtful manner, which exemplifies the best of our frayed democratic traditions. Meanwhile, many readers of this paper will recognize the current popularity of making up one’s own facts, firing off an opinion that displays historical amnesia, all the while blithely ignoring the common good, and thus will forgive me for any excesses in my humble proposal.
Faulty thinking produces bad government, and, without a doubt, it’s faulty thinking that’s propelling Montana’s conservative Republican legislators in their benighted, perverse and relentless drive to neutralize Montana’s major environmental statutes (see “Natural disaster,” Feb. 17, 2011). This in a state whose very identity is drawn from its largely intact (but nonetheless fragile) environmental amenities, a state that has been heretofore making heroic efforts—in Libby, Bonner, Anaconda, Butte and elsewhere—to rectify the damages done during eras when environmental protections were either nonexistent or poorly enforced. If Montana’s anti-environmental, totalitarian-minded, neo-con ideologues have their way, legislatively, Montana shall, once again, be prey to the corporate sociopaths who pursue profit at all costs, and who disdain the higher values—the higher life-sustaining values—inherent in the natural world if it’s respected, protected and kept intact. An intact natural world is a veritable form of providence for us earthlings, and it is, in fact, the sine qua non (the “without-which-nothing”) of all prosperity.
Unfortunately, those obvious truths are not fathomed by the money-mad entrepreneurs who earn their bonuses by ruthlessly exploiting and polluting, nor are those truths fathomed by legislators who are the minions of such entrepreneurs (who, by dint of their idiocy and greed, turn free enterprise into an obscenity that it need not be). In view of the citizenry’s absolute reliance upon a clean and healthy environment (for obtaining the most basic of life-sustaining substances, i.e., clean air and clean water) how can the Republican Party’s explicit pursuance of a less-clean, less-healthy environment be regarded as anything less than a gross violation of the peoples’ trust? What kind of “government” is it that would, intentionally, condemn us all to the dreariness and illness engendered by a more toxic environment?
The events of the past weeks of the Montana legislative session prompt me to write a letter, not about specific bills, but about the shift in the value systems of the people who are elected to represent us.
On Jan. 28, 2011, Rachel Maddow discussed this shift using Republican President Eisenhower as an example. (You can Google this by searching “Eisenhower Rachel Maddow.”) According to the politics of today, Eisenhower would seem like a radical. He advocated for expanding Social Security, strengthening unions, more access to health care and equal pay for workers regardless of sex. This is not a comprehensive list, just a selection.
Our state government has cut federal food stamp benefits by $35 million and the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program by $9 million. This is not state money. It was simply turning away federal dollars that would have gone to Montana families in need. This is the tiny tip of the iceberg.
The part of this that fills me with confusion is that many members of this ultra-conservative group identify themselves as Christians. How does denying food and warmth to low-income children, the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, and the mentally ill coincide with the principles of Christianity? Where does looking out for yourself, and ignoring everyone else, find a place in the value systems of people who have been elected as public servants?
It is up to us, the people, to correct this trend and to change our direction. I hope for sanity and compassion.