A Bad Wrap 

Wrapping up the results of the 2001 Legislature

The 2001 Legislature—led by Republican majorities and having worked in concert with the new Republican governor—is finally over. And, as expected and richly deserved, the reviews are disastrous. Even the Republican-dominated Public Service Commission has joined editorial boards, citizens, and consumer and industry groups in decrying the Legislature’s total failure to solve the single biggest problem facing the state: affordable energy.

Meanwhile, a swelling chorus of dissatisfaction is rising across Montana’s broad spectrum of citizens and lifestyles as those incensed by inadequate funding for schools, universities, and human services are joining others who are howling over the latest Republican-led assaults to weaken environmental and worker-protection laws. It seems almost impossible that in four short months a single-party Legislature and governor managed to create so many enemies while losing friends, put so many at risk to benefit so few, and leave such major issues as Montana’s energy supply so totally unresolved—but that’s what happened. And that’s why the 2001 Legislature sucked.

House of Bad Deals

Early in the session, the out-numbered House Democrats gave bi-partisan cooperation a try by agreeing to Republican suggestions on the legislative process. In doing so, they gave up the few tools available to the minority to fight the tyranny of the majority—in other words, to keep themselves, their beliefs, and their constituents from being steamrolled. For unknown reasons, the D’s expected there would be some quid pro quo for their cooperation. But whenever the Republican majority wanted to push one of their bills through, or kill a Demo bill, they did just that.

As more contentious issues came before the House, the degree to which the majority continued to oppress the minority also increased, further escalating Democrats’ frustrations. By the end of the session the partisan squabbling had grown to open hostility, with longtime legislative watchers dubbing it one of the meanest sessions in memory. When it finally ended, the open warfare between the political parties got even uglier as blame was assessed for the session’s many failures. But just to keep the record straight, on the last day of the session, when Helena Democrat Dave Gallik questioned House Majority Leader Paul Sliter (R-Somers) about “who was driving the bus here,” Sliter angrily shouted into his mic, “It’s not you, it’s us,” while pointing out the 58 Republicans and 42 Demos. And Sliter is right, the R’s are fully in charge of both the state’s legislative arena and Governor’s Office, and the outcome of this session belongs wholly to them.

Energy Tops List of Failures

As predicted, solving the mess resulting from the 1997 Legislature and then-Governor Marc Racicot’s disastrous decision to deregulate electricity supplies was by far the single greatest dilemma facing the 2001 Legislature. In the first days legislative leaders promised Montanans that they would take care of the problem. But in the end, it was a promise they did not keep. Instead they opted for a private, last-day deal between Montana Power Company and Pennsylvania Power and Light, in which PPL is supposed to supply power to MPC at nearly twice our current rate.

The problem with the deal is that it doesn’t meet the demands of Montana’s citizens and the industrial sector, which has experienced hundreds of layoffs as companies that are unable to afford the high market rates for electricity have cut back operations or shut down. Legislation that would have reinforced the Public Service Commission’s ability to regulate prices until competition developed was shot down in the closing hours of the session—as were bills that would have imposed an excess profits tax on electricity providers and out-of-state sales.

Which is not to say the Legislature did nothing about the energy problem. They did just what you would expect free-market, supply-side idealogues to do. The best of their efforts offer tax credits and loan programs for bringing alternative energy sources, such as our plentiful wind and solar potential, into production—including one law specifically tailored for siting such facilities on Indian reservations. The worst of their efforts did just what the R’s have been doing for years—gutting environmental protections under the rubric of energy or economic development.

As a result, Montanans can look forward to a host of nasty consequences ranging from less input on major facility siting decisions to dirtier air caused by “temporary generation facilities” now exempted from environmental permitting requirements. Missoulians are experiencing the first tastes (literally) of increased diesel pollution brought on by Stone Container’s on-site generators. Meanwhile, folks in Butte have begun to complain as Montana Rail Link moves old locomotives onto side tracks and lets them rumble, smoke and shake the earth for the sole purpose of generating electricity and pumping it back into the lines. For the favor of having our environment polluted while disturbing our domestic tranquility, MRL proposes to sell the electricity back to Montanans at only quadruple the price residents currently pay.

As most people know, Montana has never had an electricity shortage, since we produce twice what we need and export the rest. These supply-side solutions are just an excuse—and a poor one at that—for the Legislature’s inability to bring corporate pirates under control. In the short term, we are likely to lose major industries who simply cannot wait for new supply to come on line. In the long term, we will see small businesses, ranchers and farmers driven out of business while the costs of every electricity-dependent commodity goes through the roof and bankrupts our citizens.

Education, Employees & the Environment

Universally, education, environment and labor supporters all say the 2001 Legislature trashed their interests. Education leaders, who fought hard all session to get half of what they need, say the underfunding of primary and higher ed will lead to an immediate reduction in the quality of education and a long-term decline across the system. Plus, they wonder what will happen to energy costs and question if the funding levels will be sufficient to even keep the schools heated and lit. The immediate fallout promises to be higher local mill levies to pick up the slack for schools and a 20 percent University system tuition hike in the next two years.

Labor advocates are even more blunt, with the AFL-CIO’s Don Judge saying the Legislature “gave employers a license to kill without consequence” by limiting an employee’s ability to sue over workplace injuries. Pointing to the fact that only two states, Alaska and Wyoming, have higher on-the-job death rates than Montana, Judge said a new law will make it “almost impossible” for workers to sue over work-related injuries. Adding insult to injury, the Legislature also refused to extend unemployment benefits to workers idled by high electricity costs.

And environmentalists remain the unfortunate scapegoat for every woe from the economy to energy costs. In a move that would be ridiculously funny were it not so tragic, legislators blamed environmentalists for the energy problems and then moved to further reduce environmental protections, the same thing Republican legislatures have been doing for most of the last decade. You might think, given the absolute failure of this policy as evidenced by both our economic standing and last-place wages, that the 2001 Legislature would have tried something more original to solve our problems. But instead, with almost a religious fervor, they took out their frustrations on the Major Facility Siting Act and the Montana Environmental Policy Act, neutering if not gutting, these longstanding foundations of environmental law.

Praise the Brave, Condemn the Knaves

In short, the 2001 Legislature was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish—but there are a couple of good things to come out of it. One good thing is you sure don’t hear much about “the Racicot Legacy” anymore. The disastrous condition in which our ex-governor left the state as he skipped out to his new job in D.C. is undeniable—and no amount of his glib political rhetoric can ever cover over the grim reality that Montanans are now living. Another good thing is the heroism shown by those legislators who fought the brave but futile fight against the juggernaut of the Republican majority. Like the picture in Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty’s office of the lone Chinese dissident in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square, they knew they could not stop the treads from rolling, but nonetheless, they stood and tried. And for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude.

As for the rest, given the extent of their ideological failures, policy disasters and mean-spirited attitudes, perhaps the best thing they can do for this state now is to simply go home. They have tried and they have failed. Come next election cycle, Montanans can go to the polls and send a new band of legislators who, unlike the current corporate puppets, will hopefully act in the best interests of the people they are elected to represent.

George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. In this year’s session, he worked as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.

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