Ochenski: Chaos in the Capitol 

Who'll clean up after this dog and pony show?

Chaos ruled the Capitol this week as order broke down, the established rules of governance were ignored, and the vaunted Republican Guard turned on each other in a spate of vicious in-fighting. Had the unruly crowd of desperate malcontents poured from the building and ransacked the nearby Historical Society, no one would have been surprised. Am I talking about Baghdad? Nope, I’m talking about the 2003 Legislature in Helena, Mont.

Nearly four months ago, the single greatest task facing the Montana Legislature was balancing a structurally unsound state budget that was $250 million in the hole. Montanans had every right to expect the big-talking Republican leaders who hold the House, Senate, and governor’s office to knuckle down and take care of the business at hand. But no! Having frittered away their time hacking environmental laws and trying to overturn citizen-passed initiatives, these sorry excuses for leaders are just days away from the end of the session and a fiscally responsible budget solution remains as elusive now as it was four months ago.

The reality is that the high-flying Republican dog and pony show is down to one pony and no dogs—well, except for the lapdog in the governor’s office. The one pony left (actually, bare-boned, sway-backed old nag might be a more accurate description), is SB 407, Martz’ sales tax bill sponsored by Sen. DePratu (R-Whitefish). The measure came into the session as the governor’s so-called “economic development” bill to raise millions by slapping a sales tax on everything from recreation to food. The “economic development” moniker was just a facade for a plan to move the new money it raised on the backs of middle- and low-income citizens to the richest Montanans in the form of disproportionate income tax breaks. In other words, the more you have, the more you get (hey, it’s the Republican credo).

After struggling through a thousand incarnations in the Senate, the measure was passed to the House with mere weeks left in the session. Only a prestidigitator could possibly pull an “economic development” rabbit out of the bill now, but it is the sole revenue measure left alive that might yet bring this benighted Legislature to a close. I say “might” because the uncertainties surrounding the passage of the legislation seem to be growing, not diminishing, with the passage of time.

In its current form, the measure slaps on a new 4 percent rental car tax, ups the bed tax to 7 percent, quadruples cig taxes to 70 cents a pack, and doubles the tax on all other tobacco products. Clinging desperately to their credo of giving the rich even more, Republican majorities still shovel off a large chunk of the $68 million in new revenue to income tax and capital gains tax breaks for those who need it least. But facing dire predictions of a human services disaster as a result of savage budget-slashing, at least some of the new money is slated to bail out the state.

The measure, however, has a lot of enemies. Demos don’t like the disproportionate tax breaks for the rich and would like to see more of the revenue go to property tax relief, human services, and education needs. Repubs are repulsed to be levying new taxes—in direct contradiction to their campaign pledges. Gov. Martz, meanwhile, threatens to veto the bill for a variety of wacky reasons that only make sense to those with lapdog logic. Last Friday, when the bill came up for its first House floor vote, it died, touching off blind panic among House Republican leaders.

After a weekend of political arm-bending, the House leadership reconsidered the bill again on Monday, hoping that legislators had changed their minds and would then change their votes—which is just what happened. In its first vote on Monday, the bill died when even more people voted against it, turning Repub panic into total chaos as House leaders threw away the legislative rules and kept bringing the bill back for vote after vote, desperately hoping for approval.

Finally, however, it passed in one of the most disgusting moments ever witnessed in the long history of the Montana Legislature with Majority Whip Cindy Younkin (R-Bozeman) chairing the floor session. Since the chair is the only one in the House with a numeric vote monitor, Younkin closed the third vote attempt prematurely as soon as it hit 49-47. Unfortunately for Younkin, in her fervor to rush the vote, she blew off the proper procedures and neglected to ask if “every member had voted and if any member wished to change their vote?” Her attempt to manipulate the voting procedure prompted loud recriminations from the floor and forced a re-vote.

Shaken and angry, Younkin re-opened the vote but saw that they still didn’t have the majority needed to pass the bill. Then, in a move that left virtually everyone in the House chambers outraged, Younkin refused to close the vote and, as the seconds ticked by, chided legislators from the podium: “Come on, we need one more vote so we don’t have to do this again.” Rep. John Sinrud (R-Bozeman) changed his vote from “no” to “yes” and Younkin immediately slapped the voting closed and scurried from the podium before the hisses turned to boos.

Speaker of the House Doug Mood (R-Seeley Lake) took over and was instantly challenged on the legality of the House actions by Rep. Dave Gallik (D-Helena). “We voted three times and the bill failed two out of three,” Gallik said. “This bill is now open to a serious constitutional challenge and will probably wind up in court. You have the ponies, so why can’t you even play by the rules?”

Gallik is right. Given the Republican majority control, there was simply no reason for Younkin’s blatant abuse of legislative procedure. It’s just another sign that the desperados in charge of Montana’s future are scared, running wild, and bringing chaos, not cohesion, to the Capitol.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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