Friday afternoon found me sitting in the nearly deserted House of Representatives gallery looking down on a sea of bald heads and bad comb-overs. Speaker of the House Dan McGee was apologizing for making yet another procedural mistake while trying to dispose of a bill everyone wanted gone. It was a simple thing to do but McGee, in a parody of the entire special session, struggled to get it done. For a moment, pity wrestled with dismay as I watched the futile thrashing—but only for a moment. Then, shaking my head at the depths to which our legislative process had sunk, I rose to walk out.
A small group of middle-aged women stopped me as I passed and asked, “Can we talk with you a moment?” One woman carried the red and white staff used by the blind, while another wore long crutches with bands that fit her upper arms. “We came over from Missoula for a hearing,” said the blind woman, speaking with her ear turned in my direction. “But there was no hearing. When we talked with the chairman of the committee, he told us that he must have amnesia, because he forgot to schedule the bill.” In the course of our short discussion, their story came out. The women were disabled and had come to testify about what the special session budget cuts would mean to their lives. In the jargon of the Legislature, it’s called “putting a human face” on the budget. But there was no hearing, so their trip had been for naught. “We are not wealthy,” they said. “And we didn’t want to make the long trip, but we felt it was important.” Then they asked, “What can we do now?”
While there is little formal recourse to a lack of public information or involvement in the special session, I thought they could probably lodge a complaint with the Speaker of the House, and write letters to the editors of the papers to share their frustration and disappointment at trying, but failing, to be included in the public policy decisions of the Legislature. With a heavy heart and a sense of the injustice they felt, I told them there was little else they could do.
Shortly thereafter, I saw the blind woman with Rep. Tom Facey (D–Missoula), walking into the “closed” lobby and obviously heading toward the Speaker’s office to lodge their complaint. Yet even as I watched them go, I knew there was no way any hearing would be held or that their bill would be acted on before the session adjourned on Saturday.
Some would say I’m getting soft in my old age, remind me that missed or canceled hearings are normal during the hectic scheduling of any special session, and admit that it was too bad for the disabled women, but hey, that’s the way it goes. I guess they would be right—even the most experienced legislative staffers, lobbyists, and legislators are hard-pressed to follow the rapid-fire succession of actions and counteractions that characterize these proceedings. Truth be told, it’s almost hopeless for the average citizen to wade into these shark-filled waters of a special session and get something done. Yet at its very foundation, ours is not a government of legislators, lobbyists, and special interests, but “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” And in this regard, the special session failed horribly to live up to that mandate.
I don’t know what happened to the little group after I left, but here’s what happened at the session—it adjourned in the middle of the night on Saturday. If the news articles are right, the conference committee that hammered out the final budget bill met unannounced, after midnight, behind closed doors that were guarded by Speaker of the House Dan McGee and President of the Senate Tom Beck—two men who pledged to uphold the constitutional requirement that “all committee meetings and all hearings shall be open to the public.” When an Associated Press reporter finally caught word of the secret committee meeting, President of the Senate Beck is reported to have said, “I guess we’ve got to let you in.”
Governor Martz and Republican leaders are calling this session a success. But the truth is, this is no way to run a state. There are many good reasons why, in years past, every effort was made to avoid late-night sessions. For one thing, midnight is far past bedtime for most legislators. After long hard days, the quality of legislative decision-making in the wee hours of the morning is, to be kind, severely reduced by a diminished ability to concentrate, to think, and to craft public policy in a prudent manner. For another thing, there are very few members of the public willing to stick around in the middle of the night to keep an eye on what their government is doing. The government that operates in secret is not the government that will serve citizens well in the long run—not in Washington, D.C., and not in Helena, Montana.
So why did this Legislature and these leaders chose to ignore this long-standing policy? Perhaps because they spent too many hours holding controversial, staged, informational “hearings” to boost campaign hopes for Republican candidates like Mike Taylor. Or maybe because they burned up a perfectly good morning—when they should have been working—listening to political campaign speeches by Republicans Rep. Denny Rehberg and U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.
“Creative bookkeeping” and dubious budget balancing measures aside, the special session of the Legislature set new lows in political accountability by excluding the public, ignoring minority bills, and holding secret committee meetings at midnight. These actions bode ill for Montana’s future and give an already disenfranchised public even more reason to be cynical about politics and politicians. Is it any wonder, as though ashamed, they slipped away in the night?
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.