Good riddance 

Montana's legislative circus folds its tent

Given this week's endless stories about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, one might think the title of this column is simply repeating the Old Testament "eye for an eye" mantra that death is good when it comes to those we hate. But that's not what this column is about. It's about the end of the circus that was the 2011 legislative session, the ugly scum left behind, and what, in the next week, may or may not be done about it.

The Republican-dominated 2011 legislature left town late last week and from virtually every corner the cry of "good riddance" was raised. Never before have Montanans witnessed such a collection of absolute nonsense being passed off as the serious business of developing the policies, appropriating the budgets, and writing the laws under which our state will live for at least the next two years.

The good news is that many of the session's truly horrible bills died of their own accord because they were blatantly unconstitutional or simply too inane to pass into law. Hunting with spears would be one good example, as would the loony gun bills championed by Billings' own "Krazy" Krayton Kerns. I mean, why wouldn't we want to have legislators carrying concealed weapons in the Capitol. Just look at how well they already get along. Then again, without that precious Code of the West to follow, pandemonium might have broken out if they were all carrying pistols.

The bad news is that when the legislators left town, as predicted in this column last week, they left behind about 100 bills dropped like fresh cow pies on the governor's desk. No, they didn't leave a pay plan to deal with the state's 11,600 employees. Nor did they pass the bonding bill for the Historical Society museum, the university system, or a veteran's home in Butte. But hey, you couldn't expect them to get all that work done in a mere four months, because they were too busy telling Montana's voters what they didn't understand when we voted on the initiatives to approve medical marijuana, and to ban nuclear facilities and cyanide heap leach mining. Yet somehow, the same voters who were too dumb to understand what they were voting on before surely knew what they were going to get when they sent these clowns to the Capitol.

And then there's Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He's a Democrat with a penchant for tooting his own horn while making a great show of ridiculing the Legislature. Most of the governor's time was spent trying to win an argument with the Republicans over how much money remained in the state treasury and how it should be spent. It's an argument he ultimately lost.

While Schweitzer was unable to convince Republicans about the treasury, he apparently believed his own spiel and decided to give some of that money away by slipping in a $2.8 million tax break for underground coal mines, right at session's end—a move he somehow forgot to talk about while he was busy using his veto branding irons the week before.

Those millions will benefit only one business, the Signal Peak Mine, near Roundup. If you believe his reasoning, Montanans simply had to give up the money so the mine—which has one of the worst safety records in the state–could attract new investors and expand.

The grim irony is that those millions could perhaps have headed off tuition increases for Montana's college students instead of mining more coal for traditional power plants so they can spew more warming gasses into the atmosphere. Those dollars could also have been used to pay for the impacts the mine continues to create locally for Roundup residents–one of the promises made by the Schweitzer administration when it initially touted the Signal Peak operation, but that apparently was less important than the tax break.

Then again, it's worth remembering that our governor was dubbed the "Coal Cowboy" early on by the national media after his endless promotion of the dirtiest fuel on the planet. Despite his shtick about how Montana had to "show China and India how to use coal cleanly," the fact is that seven years into his term as governor, there is not a single "clean coal" facility in Montana. What we're doing is simply mining coal to send to China. The result is that we get the coal trains and destruction of our landscapes so that China, our economic competitor, can burn the coal and send us the pollution on the prevailing winds.

It was also a Democrat, Butte's Jim Keane, who dropped one of the biggest cow pies now sitting on the governor's desk. That would be SB233, the bill to gut the Montana Environmental Policy Act, by basically making compliance with this bedrock environmental-protection bill voluntary. But as Keane can assure us, coming from Butte and all, the corporations who grow fat by extracting Montana's natural resources would never do anything to hurt the environment.

The question now is whether Schweitzer will veto Keane's bill. Although he crows like a rooster, Schweitzer was a chicken when it came to vetoing the horrendous medical marijuana bill, saying he'll allow it to become law without his signature. The predictable result is that the state will now waste more money trying to defend the unworkable law in court, on top of the revenue and more than 2,000 jobs the measure destroys.

For now, however, the circus is over and only the second-floor sideshow remains in the Capitol.

Montanans have not been well-served by either party in the last four months, despite some notable exceptions by a few brave legislators. Instead, we've been insulted, talked down to, and fleeced. Is it any wonder, when we look back at it all, that "good riddance" is the phrase on most peoples' lips?

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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