Headed for the barn 

Approaching the end of the day in Helena

There will still be plenty of whining and crying, finger-pointing and grandstanding at the 2005 Montana Legislature, but for all practical purposes, after three long, dusty months on the trail, this session is headed to the barn like an old saddle horse at the end of the day.

The evidence is all there for anyone actually in proximity to the Capitol. There are parking places even in the middle of the day because most of the hearings have already happened, most of the bills have already been acted on, and the big crowds are long gone.

Although the session started out with a record number of bills requested (about 2,300), nearly 1,000 of those never even got introduced. The reason is simple: After 16 years in control of the governor’s office and 12 years of legislative dominance, Republicans got used to being in the driver’s seat.

But then the elections happened and lo and behold, the Republican majorities vanished from the Legislature and Democrat Brian Schweitzer became governor. What that means, of course, is that a bunch of Republican bills that would normally have had a wonderful chance of passing into law were suddenly a lot less likely to cruise through the session—much less clear the final hurdle of Schweitzer’s veto pen.

Consequently, a lot of really bad stuff—the kinds of things we’ve seen on a repeated basis over the last decade—didn’t happen this time around. There was no late-session surprise to deregulate utilities, no run at ripping off the Coal Tax Trust Fund to balance the budget, no massive gutting of Montana’s environmental laws to “create a better business climate” for the multi-national rape and pillage of our natural resources. Even the bad Republican habit of robbing the poor to pay the rich is on the wane.

On the other hand, the concrete gains of the session have likewise been modest. Although passage of the state employee pay plan was an early victory, the struggle to adequately meet the Supreme Court’s mandate to provide a “quality education” for all Montanans remains a hot point of contention, as does the Court’s ruling that the state has blown off its constitutionally mandated responsibility to provide Indian education for all. To be sure, more money is headed in the right direction than in recent years, but there is still much gnashing of teeth over how much it will take to actually get the job done.

Nor has this been a spectacular session for bipartisan cooperation. The high-pitched whine and inflammatory rhetoric coming from Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan set the tone for the Republican resistance to its new minority status, but it’s fair to say it didn’t really resonate well with Montanans who, not unreasonably, would like to see the two parties actually work together for the good of the state as a whole some day.

Meanwhile, the 50-50 split in the House has produced more bad votes on good bills than expected. Most of Montana doesn’t really operate on a partisan basis, however. Infrastructure problems for local governments, environmental protection for fish and wildlife, the education of our kids, the care of our seniors and most needy, and planning for the state’s long-term future affect everyone regardless of whether they vote Democrat, Republican or anything else.

The good news is that a number of bills that benefit the constituents of any given legislative district are beginning to draw adherents from both parties. Also good news is that some bad bills are likewise drawing no votes from both parties. That party-line votes are beginning to wane in the face of constituent needs and desires brings hope for the final weeks of the session.

But don’t get your hopes up too high. I’d hate to have anyone think that the final month of the 2005 legislative session will be a love-fest. After all, we’re basically down to the big-money bills, and when the Legislature fights over who gets what slice of the pie, the fur is likely to fly.

For his part, Gov. Schweitzer has pretty much hovered above the fray. Although he was criticized for cornering Republican legislators to stump for his legislative initiatives, that criticism was both unjustified and hypocritical. Every sitting governor in memory has done exactly the same thing to try to get their bills passed—and Schweitzer is no different.

If anything, Schweitzer has been plenty skookum in his relationship with the Legislature by holding his fire on pushing for or threatening vetoes against most issues until the Legislature makes its move. After all, the bills have to survive the considerable challenge of passing committee hearings, floor debates and final votes before they even get to the governor’s desk. While many bills are spawned, few will live through the long uphill swim to actually become law.

To the credit of the governor and the Legislature, so far they have held the line on the budget. Perhaps both political parties finally understand that Marc Racicot’s runaway spending set the stage for Judy Martz’s fiscal dilemmas—and the tidal wave of bad ideas that accompanied them. Perhaps Republicans understand that the Martz record had a great deal to do with the Democrat victories in the polls. And perhaps the Democrats remember that it was their ill-fated “tax and spend” proclivities that drove them from power in the early ’90s. Whatever the cause, the effect seems to be that this Legislature is likely to live within its means, and that is very good news.

To be sure there will be some fireworks in the coming weeks. Some will try to engineer a train wreck just to embarrass the new governor—and some will howl that their needs have gone unmet.

For a transition session, however, Gov. Schweitzer and the 2005 Legislature have done a pretty good job. Let’s just hope they don’t blow it at the wire.

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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