After 70 days, the 2001 legislative session is seeming more and more like a visit to Jurassic Park. In the hit movie, an eccentric billionaire using genetic manipulation decides to recreate once-extinct dinosaurs on a steamy tropical island and charge the world a fortune to tour his prehistoric amusement park. Some smarmy scientist spouting chaos theory predicts that disaster will result as many more things go way more wrong than anyone would ever be able to accurately forecast—no matter how much money you spend, how many computers you have or how many geniuses you hire to operate them. In the end, of course, the smarmy scientist turns out to be right. Due to the cumulative effect of things that go unforeseeably wrong, the entire experiment mounts to a disastrous, fatal conclusion. In the movie, what’s left of the good guys barely made it to a chopper to fly away from the wildly out-of-control island. At the Capitol, chaos theory is once again being proved—only there’s no chopper out and we still have 20 more days to go.
Take the case of the beleaguered governor. After beating a tough candidate who out-spent her 3-to-1, Gov. Martz took office riding a tide of industrial optimism and promising to be "a lapdog" of corporate interests. The entire campaign, much like the billionaire’s dream of Jurassic Park, was dominated by themes of wonder and wealth: Education would come first and economic development would leap forward, all the while protecting the precious resources of Montana’s environment.
But the dream was not to be, and the reality, as it has a nasty habit of doing, turned out to be much different. The budget surplus vanished into thin air, picking up the tab for Racicot’s overspending. Then deregulation hit the industrial sector with a vengeance and suddenly mines, mills, refineries, smelters and cement plants were laying off people or shutting down completely because they couldn’t afford the new market price for the electricity that has been cheap and abundant for the last century. Instead of moving forward with bold economic development initiatives, the administration struggles simply to survive. When miners from the governor’s home town of Butte came to visit, it wasn’t to cheer the opening of some new mine, but to petition her for extended unemployment benefits—which she denied them. In Butte, where they play marbles for keeps, such actions are never forgiven—or forgotten.
As for education, which was supposed to be the top priority, it is fair to say that chaos theory is running rampant, and no one is predicting the final outcome. One thing seems certain, however: Declining elementary enrollments, rising utility costs, a falling stock market and the potential for a national recession have produced nearly universal trepidation that the future for state revenues may be even worse than today, and the future for school funding even more constrained. Unless, of course, there is some change in tax policy.
Again, on tax policy, the experiment seems to have gone horribly awry. The Republican majority and the governor were both elected on their promises to reduce spending and taxing. Like former President George Bush, Gov. Martz made a no-new-taxes pledge. And, like former President Bush, keeping that pledge might not be so easy. As the Legislature lurches toward its finish, Republican tax committees are beginning to crank out a number of bills that, no matter how you read their lips, amount to tax hikes. With an increasingly out-of-balance budget, these Republicans, like their Democrat counterparts before them, are finding it much easier to tax and spend than to actually reduce the size of government. And, just like the Democrats, the more they tax and spend, the less likely they are to be returned to office come the next election.
Finally, there are the shattered promises of economic development without sacrificing the environment. While economic development seems to have disappeared in the legislative chaos, environmental protection for future generations of Montanans have been targeted, run down, and gutted by legislative velociraptors. Bills to significantly alter the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Major Facility Siting Act are headed for the governor’s desk. Were she to keep her campaign promise to Montanans, Martz would have to veto every single one—because every one diminishes protection of our environment. But that’s not likely to happen. Instead, the bills will be signed into law and even more chaos will be unleashed upon our lands, our air, our waters and our people.
As the 2001 legislative session stumbles toward its conclusion, Montanans watch in dismay. The dream of a brighter future, so fetchingly painted by candidates only six months ago is, like Jurassic Park, changing into a nightmare where we run in terror from toothy predators roaring in the night. Instead of going forward into the 21st century, we seem to have gone back in time to a vicious world where the rule of civilization has been subsumed by a primordial disorder in which the strong mercilessly crush the weak. It would be wonderful if, like Jurassic Park, this was just a movie and at the end we, like the good guys, could hop in a chopper and leave the nightmare behind. But this is no movie, there is no chopper, and we have 20 more days of chaos to survive.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.