The 2005 Legislature got off to a rocky start this week—at least in the House of Representatives, which is evenly split with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Rev. George Harper, a former Constitutional Convention delegate, must have sensed what was coming when he opened the House session with this invocation: “If there was ever a time for prayer, this is it.” Moments later, the body broke into contentious squabbling over the election of the speaker of the house, undeterred by whatever prayers Harper’s plea may have stirred.
For those unfamiliar with legislative process, the speaker of the house is widely considered one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature. The speaker runs the House—from determining which bills go to which committees and strategically timing crucial floor debates to assigning legislators to committees and presiding over the House as it runs its daily course. And since the speaker is elected from whichever party holds the majority, they are held to be the natural leader and chief spokesperson for their party. But therein lies the hitch.
In an evenly divided House, Montana law dictates that the speaker be of the same party as the governor. In this case, it means the speaker must be a Democrat, since Gov. Brian Schweitzer is a Democrat. Traditionally, the speaker is chosen by members of his or her own party and that choice is honored by the other party. In 1985, the last time the House was split 50-50, the governor was a Democrat, so the Democrats picked John Vincent as their leader and he was elected speaker without much fuss. He ran a productive and fair session.
Unfortunately, that precedent was irrevocably discarded this week when bizarre political shenanigans overthrew honor and tradition. In a move that reeked of backroom deal-cutting, Republicans chose to ignore Rep. David Wanzenreid, the Democrats’ chosen candidate for speaker, and voted unanimously to elect Democrat Gary Matthews of Miles City who, besides voting for himself, garnered the votes of two other Democrats to beat Wanzenreid by a 53-47 margin.
The move has ignited a blaze of indignation among Democrats that will likely burn throughout the session. Right out of the chute, it is seen as a serious intrusion in the Democrat caucus by Republicans—and in this, they are correct. Obviously Matthews was not the choice of the Democrats or they would have voted for him. The simple truth is that he is neither the leader of nor spokesman for the Demos and his election by the Republicans effectively deprived the Democrats of what should have been their strongest position in the House.
Now, instead of acting as a unifying force and leader for the Democrats, the speaker will be, as Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, who nominated Matthews said, “a mediator.” Generally speaking, however, mediators are chosen because they are amenable and acceptable to both sides in a debate, so in reality, Keane’s description is simply a high-sounding misnomer.
As for the politics behind the move, the motives are fairly clear. Besides hamstringing the Democrats by giving them a spokesman not of their choice, the Republicans have elevated someone who is much more likely to view resource extraction and development in a positive light, while minimizing the need for environmental controls.
Wanzenreid, who is from Missoula, knows and lives with the problems faced by Montanans in the western half of the state. The thriving valleys of Western Montana are struggling to deal with a host of problems largely unknown to those in the eastern half of our state. Attracted by all that the magnificent mountains offer, the recent flood of amenity immigrants has swelled the area’s population and brought with it the capital and energy to create new business.
But the influx of new people also threatens the very environmental and recreational amenities that attracted them in the first place. Air pollution from a variety of sources turns into choking inversions in our valleys, and ranches and the habitat they contain disappear as subdivision development crawls across the valley floors and creeps up the sides of the surrounding foothills. Depletion or pollution of ground and surface water threatens the health and, in some cases, the very existence of our world-famous and much-loved rivers, lakes and fisheries. And then there are the soaring property values and concurrently soaring property taxes.
In eastern Montana, neither open space nor rising property values are high priorities—they have plenty of open space and more is being created every day as the area continues to lose population. Meanwhile, drought and stagnant ag commodity prices make it tougher for farmers and ranchers to stay in business. When they go down, so do those who sell them the farm implements, hardware, fertilizer and other vital necessities of ag production—as do property values.
Far from thinking about the demise of the fluvial grayling or worrying about inversions, eastern Montanans are more likely to turn to what they have in abundance as salvation to their population loss problems. As luck would have it, that turns out to be massive deposits of coal. That burning coal is a huge contributor to global climate change—and creating the continuing drought that’s hammering the ag sector—is not part of the equation.
Likewise, coal bed methane extraction is a growing industry in eastern Montana’s coal regions, but releases enormous masses of saline water on the surface. It was considered such a serious threat that even resource-extraction advocate Judy Martz threatened to stop Canada from developing deposits upstream of the Flathead River.
Matthews may be a fine representative of his constituents, but a glance at a population chart will tell you he simply does not represent the concerns faced by a majority of Montanans these days. Nor does he represent the Democrat caucus.
How it will all turn out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain—the 2005 Legislature goes forth with a House seriously and contentiously divided.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.