Ochenski: Nothing but losers 

Desperately seeking a silver lining in Helena

After four months of work, the disastrous 2003 Legislature is finally drawing to a close and it seems inescapably obvious that there will be nothing but losers when the final gavel falls. From a boasting but befuddled governor to big-talking leaders of the House and Senate, the promise of a brighter future for Montana has turned out to be just that—hollow talk that has crumpled in the face of the grim fiscal realities resulting from the utter failure of the last decade and a half of Republican “leadership.”

When the session started, the Republican majorities in charge of the Senate and House tossed Gov. Martz’ budget out the window before they had even been sworn in. Then they rolled back the state budget to year 2000 funding levels and started over. While state agencies and advocates for education and social serv-ices howled and gnashed their teeth, Senate President Bob Keenan and Speaker of the House Doug Mood hoped to fool Montanans into believing they were actually “adding” money to their pre-slashed budget. They also promised that their appropriations committees would be doing “the most in-depth analysis of state programs ever” to prioritize state spending and get the most out of every dime.

Now, as funding levels creep back up and Martz’ $93 million Coal Trust rip-off fades into the fantasy world from which it came, their actions and promises have been revealed as nothing more than psychological sleight of hand. Perhaps there were some Montanans who were fooled when the magnanimous Legislature “added” dollars to the budget, but many more were not.

Standing out like a beacon in the night was Sen. John Cobb, easily the most experienced member of the Legislature in the area of health and human services. In a shocking floor speech, Cobb ripped the Republican leadership for what they were doing to the state and those most in need, and declared himself “embarrassed” for the Republican party and thankful that Martz would be a “one-term” governor. While excoriated for his comments by his fellow Repubs, this brave and knowledgeable senator was praised by the citizenry for his rare display of truth in the murk of legislative lies.

Nor was Cobb alone in his condemnation. Facing a pay freeze and the unfortunate death of an early retirement bill, state employees were slapped in the face by Rep. Stan Fisher (R-Big Fork) who said they should be “thankful to have jobs” and claimed only those in the departments of Correction and Highway Patrol gave “110 percent” to their work. The thousands of state employees in the other agencies were justifiably insulted by Fisher’s comments and hundreds picketed the Capitol last week in protest of the Legislature’s actions. Given the direction this Legislature is going, such picketing of state government is likely to become much more common in the near future.

And then there are the “economic development” mavens who crowed loudly all session. As if they were the first ones to think of it, legislators like Rep. Alan Olson (R-Roundup) blamed environmental laws and tax policy for holding back the economy and sought to slash both in their vain attempts to “jumpstart” industry. What naïve rubbish! Anyone who can remember back to the ’80s will recall then-Gov. Ted Schwinden’s efforts to dramatically reduce our coal severance tax to make us more “competitive” in the marketplace. Dubbed the “Window of Opportunity,” Schwinden’s plan was supposed to induce a massive increase in coal mining but resulted in virtually nothing except the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.

The apogee of this “anything for jobs” idiocy was manifested last week when Rep. Ron Devlin (R-Terry) attached an amendment to a Senate bill that would have issued $800 million in state revenue bonds for “building railroads, transmission lines, and power plants” for private businesses. The proposal is so fiscally ludicrous—and so antithetical to the Republican mantra of “free enterprise”—that it will likely be killed eventually. That it was ever adopted in the first place, however, simply attests to the extreme measures to which these desperate “economic developers” are willing to stoop.

Similarly, efforts to “improve the business climate” by eliminating environmental protections have been tried for decades. The result? Our water, air, and lands are now subject to higher pollution levels but the economy remains comatose at the bottom of the national barrel. Our Legislature has given away the state’s natural legacy, which is rightfully the property of future generations, in a sordid attempt to whore out Montana to the lowest rape-and-scrape bidders. In return for the few boom and bust jobs produced, future generations can now look forward to paying to clean up the toxic messes our generation leaves behind. Far from pounding our chests, we should hang our heads in shame for what these “leaders” are foisting off on our children.

“But wait,” you say, “what about the ‘no new taxes’ pledge?” Here, too, the joke is on us. While Republicans were elected on the promise to hold the line on taxes, the reality is that Montanans will indeed see a host of tax increases as well as a plethora of new and higher fees—which are simply taxes in disguise. And of course, that doesn’t even count the increase in local property taxes that will result to fill the hole in education funding this not-so-visionary Legislature created.

When the 2003 session ends, you can count on just one thing: Montana will be in worse shape than ever before. Thanks to the inability of the Repubs to deal realistically with the challenges facing our state, we all lost a great deal through their attacks on citizen-passed initiatives, overturning of locally-adopted health ordinances, and trashing of our environment.

Ironically, you’ll soon hear these same “leaders” trumpeting their successes. But the reality is that our deepening fiscal morass will drag these losers back to a special legislative session all too soon. And that’s the biggest bummer of all.

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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