Remember the push to produce a document called “The Racicot Legacy”? It was an ill-fated effort by the spin-meisters of then Gov. Racicot to publish an agency-by-agency account of the tremendous successes the state had accomplished thanks to his brilliant leadership. The ruse was launched at a politically expedient time, when our dear governor was mostly ruling in absentia as a permanent part of the Bush campaign team, taking care of business virtually everywhere except in Montana. But then, who could blame him? The state was on fire, devastated by drought, and he was rising from the ashes like a phoenix headed for a higher plane. After flying to Texas and Washington, and, who could forget, defending Florida’s discredited and now defunct electoral process, our old gov left his beloved homeland to lightly settle in the distinctly more gilded nest of a D.C. Beltway law firm. The legacy publication itself turned out to be both unpopular and unnecessary, and ended up never coming into existence at all. But the real Racicot Legacy, the one Montanans are now living, is another matter entirely, and every day a new page turns up in the continuing horror story.
Just last week, Montanans found out that they will get to pay tens of millions of dollars to clean up a couple of recently closed gold mines. The mining corporations got the gold, we get the shaft, and now our citizens, with their last-place incomes, will have to spend millions in public funds to reclaim the poisonous pits left behind. Some of you may recall that it was only last year when Racicot signed the bill to virtually exempt open-pit mines from cleanup—especially if it wasn’t “economically feasible” for the mining companies. Racicot’s “rap of the day for Montanans was that lessons had been learned from Butte, and modern mining wasn’t creating any more Berkeley Pits and Clark Fork Superfund sites. Now, only four short months after the end of Racicot’s term, we find out otherwise. In fact, not only do we still have the Berkeley Pit and the Clark Fork Superfund site, we have the expanding national disgrace of the Libby asbestos tragedy and the new disasters of Zortman-Landusky and the Basin Creek mines. Living the Legacy.
Or how about electricity deregulation? In 1997, when Racicot signed the hastily passed deregulation legislation into law, he was the only individual in the state imbued with the legal power to stop the rash, corporate-dictated policy to unleash market forces on Montana’s citizens. Today, we are just beginning to experience the fallout from his decision to sign into law a bill with implications he clearly did not understand. Not only didn’t he veto the bill, both he and his administration helped it fly through the Republican-dominated Legislature with a minimum of public scrutiny.
Before we knew it, and as one of the first signals that The Legacy might not turn out so swell, the Montana Power Company had divested the dams, their water rights, and the adjacent recreational lands on Montana’s major rivers to an out-of-state corporation whose interests are significantly wider than the Big Sky state. Suddenly, our dams, on our rivers didn’t belong to us. And, as we are painfully finding out while electricity bills skyrocket and industries shut down, neither does the electricity they produce. In reported comments, the global company’s spokesman said it was never intended that the company would be responsible for supplying electricity to the people of Montana. Think “local resources, global marketing” and once again, they get the gold and we get the shaft.
If there seems to be a theme here, it’s because there is. While Racicot blew this popstand for big bucks in D.C., those of us still in Montana are living his legacy including, as it turns out, our current governor Judy Martz. Gov. Martz couldn’t get good press these days unless she bought it—and maybe not even then. While most new governors go through a honeymoon period as critics give them time to get their administration in order, Martz has come under fire for virtually every action since the day she took office. It’s like a cheap Teflon-coated pan—there was just enough Teflon to get Racicot through without much sticking, but now for Martz, the coating is scratched and peeling and everything, and I mean everything, sticks. Not since Gov. Stan Stephens, Montana’s last one-term governor and Racicot’s immediate predecessor, have Montanans demonstrated such open and widespread lack of confidence in our top decision-maker. While some are pondering what can be done to salvage her governorship, others are wondering out loud if Governor Judy has a one-way ticket to Stephens-ville. Living the Legacy.
Montana’s current situation, from economics to energy, couldn’t be more de-stabilized than it is right now. The citizens, like our leaders, look forward in fear to a future full of unknowns—not the least of which is what it will cost us just to heat and light our homes and businesses. Yet, in an exit interview, former Gov. Racicot lauded the “stability” he had brought to the state. While the rest of this stability unfolds Montanans would do well to take note of a lesson learned, albeit it a hard one. In the future, when charismatic politicians sway us with their words, their good looks, or their wonderful personalities, we would do well to separate the personality from the policies. As our painful present proves, the legacies with which our leaders burden future generations are often much different than they claim.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.