Brian vs. “the lobbyists” 

Department of babies and bathwater

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s latest foray against lobbyists has tongues wagging in the Capitol, and few of them are wagging with joy. It’s no surprise, really, when you consider that Schweitzer’s broadside was just that, a shotgun blast at a general class of citizens who happen to make their living in the halls and in front of legislative committees as they jostle and joust in the service of those they represent. After such debacles as deregulation, few would doubt that Schweitzer’s motives for wanting to change the dynamic of top-level decision-making in Montana are justified. But as with all generalizations, closer inspection reveals significant exceptions to the rule.

Right out of the chute, not all lobbyists are alike. It has been my experience that when you talk with everyday citizens about lobbying, they figure lobbyists basically spend their days sucking up to legislators and their nights buying drinks and dinners on fat expense accounts. Most public perceptions are backed up by at least some reality, and this instance is no different.

Many Montanans still remember the days when the Anaconda Company and Montana Power ruled the Capitol roost. In truth, and providing the basis of the common perception, these monsters of capitalism did indeed spend freely on wining, dining and generally sucking up to the Legislature. As a result, for nearly a century the state was literally at their mercy—or at least what little mercy they had.

Both companies now exist in memory only, but their deeds far outlive their words. The Berkeley Pit continues to fill with toxic brown water, the Anaconda Stack still claws at the sky it once filled with toxic fumes, and the upper Clark Fork River, in its lifeless state, bears mute evidence of what happens when conscienceless corporations run amok.

It is also true that in many ways the flag of corporate influence, once waved by MPC and the Anaconda Company, has been taken up by others. Big mining has waned, but big energy’s influence is almost overwhelming. The Helena watering holes still serve liquor late into the night—and lots of it still winds up on corporate tabs. The old ways die hard, and peddling influence mixed with alcohol is far from dead.

But there is another side of lobbying that deserves to have its story told as well. Given that grizzly bears and bison are not allowed in committee rooms and that trout do not last long in the halls, who speaks on their behalf? Why, lobbyists, of course. The great distinction, besides being vastly outnumbered and outspent by the corporate interests, is that these lobbyists serve the public interest, encompassing a broad category of resources and services that, far from benefiting individual corporations, benefit all Montanans.

Public interest lobbyists cover the spectrum from environment to education, growth policy to human services and everything in between. Obviously, it is tough, if not impossible, for most Montanans to spend their days talking with legislators in the Capitol. The simple truth of the matter is that most people have jobs, families and daily responsibilities that prevent them from taking part in the political process on anything but an occasional basis—if that. And while Montana is justifiably famous for its open access to our citizen legislators, most folks simply lack the specific knowledge of budgets and policies that are crucial to arguing their case before committees. So they form groups and hire lobbyists to make those arguments for them.

Finally, there is a third group of lobbyists that most people don’t even know exists. These are the government lobbyists—and they number in the hundreds. Every level of government, from federal to state to local counties and municipalities, sends lobbyists to the Capitol to argue their causes. The difference between these lobbyists and their corporate or public interest counterparts is that they are paid with taxpayer dollars. Some might justifiably ponder the justice of using taxpayer dollars to pay local government officials to lobby for more taxes—a local-option sales tax, for instance—but the truth of the matter is that it happens on a daily basis and has gone on for a very long time.

In this regard most of Gov. Schweitzer’s top advisers are, in fact, registered lobbyists—and therein lies the rub with the governor’s shotgun attack on lobbyists in general. How could he ever hope to bring about his “New Day in Montana” without putting his own policies in front of the Legislature, without working out the thorny answers to a thousand different questions every day, without catching busy legislators in the halls? Simply put, he couldn’t. Even Gov. Schweitzer needs his own lobbyists.

Which brings us right back to the dilemma now facing the governor, who has said he will not appoint lobbyists to state boards. The classic case that’s making the news is the student regent appointed by Judy Martz—who is also a lobbyist for the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association—while another Martz appointee to the Board of Regents is a lobbyist for a Billings hospital. Schweitzer wants to use his “no lobbyists” rule as the basis for replacing them with appointments of his own.

This case, however, has far less to do with lobbying than with moving Schweitzer’s agenda. Both of these regents are undoubtedly talented people, but neither are particularly invested in Gov. Schweitzer’s policies or committed to his success. It is crucial that the governor has a Board of Regents that is both familiar with and friendly toward his policies—and much of the blowup over lobbyists on state boards is directly related to this issue.

Gov. Schweitzer is a hunter and knows the difference between a shotgun and a rifle. If he wishes to lead successfully, he would benefit greatly from figuring out when to blast away with buckshot—and when to use that scope for a carefully placed shot.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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