End of an era 

A gubernatorial look back

It’s traditional at the turn of the year for political writers to take a look back, but the sand running out of Montana’s 2004 hourglass announces much more than just the end of another year. When Judy Martz walks out of the Capitol for the last time and heads home to Butte, her exit will not only close out her tumultuous tenancy as a one-term governor, it will mark the end of an era in which the GOP controlled the state’s highest office for 16 long years.

After a 20-year shut-out, the Republicans took occupancy of the governor’s office in 1989 when former state Senator Stan Stephens beat Tom Judge, a recycled Demo governor from the ’70s, in a race that lacked even a scintilla of excitement. Stephens took over from outgoing Gov. Ted Schwinden, whose second term was marked by the state’s violent fiscal thrashings, exacerbated by President Ronald Reagan’s massive trillion-dollar Cold War deficits. Although a rather unremarkable governor, Schwinden probably set an all-time record for calling special legislative sessions to balance the budget and, in so doing, set another all-time record for ripping off every pot of money the state had managed to set aside, including beggaring the education trust fund.

Stephens seized on the all-too-apparent spending proclivities of the Democrats and ascended far beyond his capabilities on the promise to control state spending. While he lasted only a single term, and spent much of that bunkered up in his office, he did his best to keep his campaign promises and went after state budgets with an ax. His efforts did not go unnoticed by state employees, who generally responded in kind. The big machine of state government slowed to a crawl, stranding Stephens with a grim record of frustration and non-accomplishment that precipitated the end of his political career and opened the door for then-Attorney General Marc Racicot.

Racicot ran as an exceedingly moderate Republican against Dorothy Bradley, a state representative and liberal icon. Suffice it to say that differentiating between Bradley and Racicot on a whole host of issues was difficult at best. In one of the strangest races of recent times, Racicot and Bradley—two intelligent, likable and popular candidates—ran primarily on their mutual support for a sales tax, one of the most unpopular issues of all time with Montana voters.

Promising to fund everything from education to health care while bringing the state into long-term fiscal stability, Racicot beat Bradley in a close race by, of all things, promising to be just slightly less profligate with the proceeds from the nonexistent sales tax. Had Bradley stuck with the Democrats’ longtime opposition to the sales tax, there is little doubt she would have beaten Racicot hands-down. But, being a liberal icon and all, she just had to have that revenue for the hundreds of millions in new government spending she proposed.

As everyone knows, the sales tax never did materialize, but by then it didn’t make much difference. Racicot was in the governor’s office, Bill Clinton was president, and the national economy was enjoying the dot-com boom years of the mid-’90s.

It was about this time that a new book, Reinventing Government, made its appearance on the bestseller lists. According the book’s theory, state and federal government could be restructured to be “more efficient and effective.” Thanks to a monumental policy blunder known as the “7 percent solution”—where the Democrat-controlled Legislature was summarily tossed out because it raised most taxes by 7 percent—Racicot enjoyed new Republican legislative majorities and got right after reorganizing Montana’s entire executive branch.

It would be wonderful to say that Racicot’s efforts were a great success, but that would be unabashedly revisionist history. Instead, the state spent money like crazy playing musical chairs in the Capitol complex. Most of the agencies got new names, bureaus and divisions were mixed and mingled, and pretty soon, no one knew what the hell was going on.

The end result, besides keeping Helena’s moving companies busy for a couple years, was that almost everybody got new stationery. Oh, and there was one more thing: Because Racicot had shuffled the cards so extensively, there was no way of knowing whether any of the agencies actually became “more efficient and effective,” since there was no way to compare the new organizational structure with the old. How handy. Despite soaring costs, Racicot claimed credit for a “successful” reorganization that was impossible to refute.

It was also during this time that Racicot took a huge turn to the right on the environment. In retrospect, his deal with the devil isn’t too hard to figure out. The conservatives in the Legislature hated Racicot’s big spending but loved his popularity. As quid pro quo for funding his double-digit budget increases, Racicot backed legislative efforts to hamstring the state’s mining reclamation, water and air quality laws from among the best in the nation to some of the worst. While we certainly wound up with a more toxic and polluted environment, the promise of a resulting boom in the economy remains unfulfilled.

Racicot won his second term easily, assisted in part by his opponent’s untimely death on the campaign trail. Inexplicably, he chose Judy Martz as his running mate. Politically unknown and seriously underpowered, her main asset seemed to be that she would provide absolutely no distraction from Racicot’s rising star.

With his newfound love of electric utility deregulation, Racicot befriended Texas governor George W. Bush and followed him to Washington, taking a lucrative position in a law firm that represented Enron. Back in Montana, electricity prices soared as Martz became a one-term gubernatorial disaster, bringing the era of Republican governors to an end.

Left behind, however, dangling over the fiscal pit like tasty carrots, are a couple million dollars in one-time funds that may lure Schweitzer and the Demos to unsustainable spending levels and future tax increases. But that, dear readers, is a story only 2005 can tell.

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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