Halftime in Helena 

A legislative progress report

The 2005 Legislature hit the halfway mark this week in Helena. As exhausted legislators make their ways back to their families, ranches and hometowns, the predictable press releases will try to make both political parties seem like they are saving the state—primarily by opposing each other. The truth, also predictably, will lie somewhere in between the divergent claims of Democrats and Republicans.

No one can deny that the Democrats came into the session with their sails billowing. Having taken back the governor’s office after 16 long years of Republican tenants, hopes were high for what incoming Gov. Brian Schweitzer lauded as his “new day” in Montana—a new day in which, ostensibly, all the musty old leftovers would be cleaned out and our state would move forward on a wave of new ideas, new perspectives and new goals.

Assisting in Montana’s renaissance would be the Senate, where a decade of Republican domination also came to an end with the 27-23 election win by the Democrats. After being pounded as a meaningless minority for so long, suddenly the worm had turned and hopes were high for reversing the policies of the past—policies that made corporate profits dominant over the public good and left us with degraded environmental laws and deregulated, dang-near unaffordable utilities. Few doubted that the sunrise of the “new day” would be highly visible in the Capitol’s eastern chamber.

And then there was the House, where a bitterly contested election was finally decided by the Supreme Court, creating a 50-50 tie that split control between the political parties. Although the law requires the speaker of the house to be of the same party as the governor, a quick heel-hook by the Republicans snagged a conservative Democrat from the pack. A Republican party-line bloc vote (with a couple Demos tossed in) denied the speaker’s post to the Democrats’ chosen leader, Rep. David Wanzenreid, and set the tone for the rest of the session.

Suddenly, the dawning of the “new day” was significantly slowed. True, there was a tinge of pink on the far horizon, but the blinding ball of the rising sun was obscured by the thick fog of hard-fought partisan politics.

Meanwhile, down in the governor’s office, the Schweitzer team was dealing with its own first taste of the new legislative realities. Although he campaigned with Republican running mate John Bohlinger and promised to work with and for both parties, Schweitzer was finding out that the hard-core Repubs on the third floor of the Capitol really weren’t going for the bi-partisan rap.

Former Senate President Bob Keenan, for instance, reared up from his new minority position to threaten Schweitzer and the Democrats with “scorched earth” over an issue as trivial as the appointment of a new student to the Board of Regents. If this seems like a throwback to the radical rhetoric of the Martz administration, perhaps that’s because Martz’s old communications director is now working for Keenan in the Senate minority office. Keenan’s unbridled partisan aggression, which is being widely perceived as obfuscatory whining, is likely to bring him about as much popularity as it brought Martz.

In spite of the divided and sometimes openly hostile Legislature, Schweitzer has made some commendable progress. The governor’s negotiated state employee pay plan, for instance, has already passed the Legislature. In sessions past, such weighty and costly legislation usually languished until the session’s final days when, as often as not, the budget was balanced “on the backs of state employees.” To get it out of the way this early in the process is a coup for Schweitzer.

The Legislature also seems to be making way on education funding, which is perhaps its biggest challenge of the session. Here again, Schweitzer has led by laying out a solid number for the maximum new funds the state can afford to dump into education—and leaving the spending details largely up to the legislators. The final decisions, however, must wait until the second half of the session.

But while some rays of the “new day” are breaking, many will not clear the horizon this session. Schweitzer’s plan to establish a commission to seek efficiency savings in government went down this week to partisan squabbling. Another 65 bills are locked in House committees on tied votes, with nearly two-thirds of them being Democrat-sponsored measures.

Those waiting for the sun to rise on environmental progress will also see little light this session. A unified conservation agenda offered four major bills to establish setbacks for riverside development, partially restore the ravaged Montana Environmental Policy Act, establish reclamation standards for coalbed methane development and require renewable energy in the state’s power portfolio. Only the renewable energy bill remains alive. On the other hand, for the first time in a long time, the crushing march of corporate control over the state’s natural resource base and the environmental laws that protect it seems to be minimized, if not halted.

Of course, the whole host of issues in the first half of the session is far too complex to cover in one short column. But you are in luck, dear readers. Since most legislators will be home for the next few days on transmittal break—and most will want to report to their constituents on the progress of the session so far—this is your chance to speak directly to your legislator and find out what’s going on “from the horse’s mouth.”

Remember that those legislators, regardless of political party, have been putting in long hours on very complex issues. They’ll be tired, and some may be downright cranky, so be courteous and treat them with kindness, but don’t hesitate one second to ask hard questions about your specific concerns—and don’t settle for ambiguous answers.

If the “new day” is to fully dawn, the second half of the session must make more real progress than the first. In this regard, your role as a citizen is nothing less than crucial. Be nice, but hold them accountable.

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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