Republicans have held the governor’s office since 1988 and the Legislature for nearly a decade. Religiously following “supply-side” economic theories, everything we have to give, from tax breaks to our environment, has been given to large industries in hopes of “jump starting” Montana’s economy. But after so many years of cranking, the battery is long gone and the economy remains dead as a doornail. The results, as in “we take these truths to be self-evident,” have been disastrous. Given the breadth and depth of the Republican failures, it would seem easy pickings for the Democrat Party—not only to point out the failures, but to provide an alternative vision for Montana’s future. But the silence is deafening. The big question is: “Where are the Democrats?”
To put it in perspective for those too young to remember, back in their heyday the Dems held the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats, at least one of our two congressional seats (yes, we had two back then), and occasionally controlled the Legislature. But two decades of political dominance made the Dems both complacent and careless—conditions on which Republicans capitalized. Complacency on the part of then-Sen. John Melcher allowed Conrad Burns, a syntax-slaughtering livestock auctioneer, to win because no one thought it could happen. Carelessness with the state budget, in an era of double-digit inflation during the ’80s, resulted in a multitude of special legislative sessions, often to raid trust funds in efforts to keep the government running.
Truth is, the Republicans had some good reasons to oust the Democrats. During the budgetary crisis, the Rs rightly said the Dems were out of ideas—and they were. Then, when the only idea the Ds could come up with was an across-the-board tax increase, (the infamous “7 percent solution”) the Rs tattooed “tax and spend” on the forehead of their opponents and the Dem majorities were sucked out to sea.
But now, the worm has turned, and it is Democrats who have good reason to oust Republicans. For one thing, the Rs didn’t keep their campaign promises. You can start with Conrad Burns, who promised he would only serve two-terms as a senator and not become a “Washington insider” like the man he replaced. He lied. Bad as that is, it wasn’t enough to turn him out to pasture and the crusty old bugger is now serving his third term in D.C.
Montana, however, is where the most obvious discrepancies between Repub promises and reality take place. The “tax and spend” Ds were ousted for supporting “big government.” In fact, Marc Racicot won his narrowest of all victories over Dorothy Bradley on the promise that he would make government more “efficient and effective” whereas Bradley, given her Demo proclivities, would spend more on an ever-bigger state bureaucracy. He lied, too. After spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a much-touted executive agency reorganization, guess what happened? Yep. Government got bigger, more expensive, and arguably even less efficient. The budget for state government, which used to be measured in millions only a decade ago, is now measured in billions annually.
Given Racicot’s personal popularity and two-thirds Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature, he could have done anything he wanted in the public policy arena. Yet, looking back on his eight years in office, real accomplishments are so few that even efforts to put together his “Legacy” report were dumped—and rather unceremoniously at that. Simply put, he didn’t have much in the way of great ideas after all and failed to deliver on his campaign promises.
Meanwhile, on the “supply side” end of the equation, the Repubs showed they did have some ideas. Unfortunately, few of those ideas were original and even fewer worked. The main effort behind the Repub ideology was simple: Give companies tax breaks, remove regulatory and environmental restrictions, and voila! Prosperity will blossom. But as we all know, that didn’t happen.
What did happen was a shifting of the tax burden off of large corporate entities and onto the backs of the general populace. Although Montana’s citizens passed a property tax freeze (I-105) by initiative, it was the Republican Legislature and governor who devised a way around it. Now, as anyone who owns a home knows, property taxes did not go down as the Rs promised, but up, up, and up some more while the economic boom simply never materialized.
An unfortunate side effect of the corporate tax giveaways, however, is that the state government budget has now returned to crisis proportions. Unlike the “tax and spend” Dems, the Repubs preferred to “borrow and spend.” Their never-ending attempts to bust the Coal Tax Trust Fund for current spending continue. Meanwhile, in a folly too large to contemplate, it was the Republican Legislature and governor who decided to issue bonds for new computer software for the state. Was this a wise move? Well, anyone who owns a computer knows how quickly software and technology change. But in order to keep up the thin façade of fiscal responsibility, the “borrow and spend” Rs decided to defer the millions in debt to the future. Now, not only is the software failing, but we are still paying for it—and will be for some time to come.
The state budget is in crisis, education funding is in crisis, health care is in crisis, energy is in crisis. There are more carcinogens and toxics in our air and water. The Repubs are even suggesting new taxes to get them out of the mess they created.
The iron is hot and the Democrats should strike. Not just to point fingers at the broken promises and failures of Republican policies, but to show us a new path to the future—one in which they do not repeat their mistakes of the past. Montanans are waiting in growing desperation. They’ve had plenty of time to rest, think, and plan—so where are the Democrats?
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.