It would be highly inaccurate to say the 2001 legislative session is off and running. Yes, it has started, but no, it’s not exactly leaping forward with unbounded hope for the future. If anything, the session seems to be wobbling ahead in tremendous uncertainty. For one thing, thanks to term limits, there are a ton of new people who are getting their first taste of what it’s like to actually run a state—and it’s a lot harder than it seems. Add to this some rather nasty fiscal leftovers from the Racicot administration, an economy where more businesses seem to be shutting down than opening up, a long-brewing funding conundrum for local governments, a howling university system, and insufficient cash to pay for it all. Toss in the debilitating effects of electricity deregulation, which is costing the state more job and tax losses every day, and you get some idea of what it’s like to be at the 2001 Legislature.
To further complicate this already complicated process, both political parties seem to be experiencing an identity crisis. Governor Judy Martz and the Republican-controlled House and Senate are in a real bind. Outgoing governor Marc Racicot left his successors some big bills to pay—not the least of which is millions of dollars in cost overruns by his state agencies in the interim since the last legislative session. And, thanks to some stunningly irrational decisions such as electricity deregulation, the new administration and Legislature find themselves with a diminishing ability to pick up the tab for Racicot’s spending spree. Industrial activity, and the much-flaunted taxes it generates, are both declining instead of blossoming. Instead of producing growing revenues for state government, corporate, severance and employee income taxes are crashing as major industries go out of business due to rising energy costs.
Meanwhile, the vibrant growth that was supposed to come in exchange for lowering water quality laws, increasing the carcinogens in our environment and virtually eliminating open pit mine reclamation requirements, simply has not occurred. Our population growth, according to the recent census, has been about 1 percent per year. In spite of political rhetoric to the contrary, and the extremely generous tax and regulatory incentives the Legislature and governor have handed out, the reality is that Montana is growing very slowly, we are mostly producing service-sector, low-paying jobs and the promised robust economy remains a Republican pipe dream. What to do about it is the question staring Republican legislative leaders in the face. Racicot’s budget is only balanced if tens of millions in new taxes are enacted. But Gov. Martz signed a “no new taxes” pledge and without the new taxes, Racicot’s budget won’t fly. In an ironic political twist, since federal taxes are deducted from state income tax returns, Repubs are hoping that President-elect Bush enacts his $1.3 trillion tax cut so it will result in more “taxable income” for Montana—and hence more revenue for government spending.
The Democrats, faced with both fiscal and political realities of their own, are also struggling. In this election cycle, as in virtually every election for the last 12 years, the Demos have lost most of the major races in the state. This long-term losing streak has precipitated an identity crisis which grows more evident daily.
The recent decision by the Clinton administration to protect Montana’s remaining roadless lands provides the most recent example. Sen. Max Baucus, who is running for re-election in two years, denounced the move because it banned commercial logging on remaining roadless lands. His criticism was echoed by Montana House Minority Leader Kim Gillan, AFL-CIO Director Don Judge and Missoula’s Sen. Vicki Cocchiarella—who all supported more logging. But other Demo legislators, such as Joan Hurdle of Billings, don’t agree. “I support Clinton’s proposal,” Hurdle told reporters, “I think this is an attempt to make Baucus look more like a Republican. I think Baucus would be a stronger candidate if he came out with strong Democratic issues.”
Like the remodeled Capitol itself—which still lacks a cafeteria where working legislators can eat a hot lunch—the session seems to have started before it was quite ready to go. But started it has and the clock is ticking. Ready or not, the 150 citizen legislators, from all walks of life and all corners of this vast state, have 90 days to complete their work. We should wish them well—because our future is in their hands. Dealing with the imbalance between spending and taxing and the deregulation disaster may be the session’s most daunting tasks, but there will be hundreds of other bills affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. The Legislature, like Montana itself, will have to wrestle through the identity crisis we seem to be confronting in the first years of this new millennium. Whether we go forward into the so-called “new economy” or backward into the old extractive economy remains unknown. If you have your druthers, don’t hesitate to let your legislators know—they will appreciate and can use all the help they can get in resolving the identity crisis Montana is now experiencing.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.