Ochenski: Rear-view vision 

Meet the new year, same as the old year

The beginning of a new year is supposed to bring resolutions to improve our lives and a general optimism that whatever has gone by is now behind us and the future lies ahead. With imagination, determination, and energy, we believe it possible to forge a new path that will take our people to a brighter future. Unfortunately, the dawning of 2003, the third year of a new millennium, seems more like Back to the Future as our state and nation hurtle recklessly down the highway at breakneck speeds while steering by looking in the rear-view mirror. The predictable, horrendous crash is just waiting to happen.

On the national level, 2003 seems more like 1991. George Bush is in the White House again, Saddam Hussein is the supreme evil in the world again, the economy is in the tank again, and we are preparing to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to battle in the Persian Gulf again. Did we “win” the last time we ran this movie or not? Depends on how you define “win.”

Obviously, America’s dependence on foreign oil is up, not down. The old saw of “energy independence” continues to be used relentlessly by those who want access to every square inch of our nation’s lands to develop more oil and gas. But real efforts to make our country more energy independent through conservation and increasing efficiency are pretty much flatlined. Sorry, but no extra money for implementing clean and sustainable energy sources like wind and solar power—we’re too busy spending billions waging war to control the world’s oil supply.

Nor has our nation attended to the tragedies which afflict veterans from that first “oil war,” although we are preparing to generate yet another wave of vets from the coming conflict. This week’s Washington Post reports that of the 523,000 veterans who served in the first Gulf War, 160,000 are sickened by mysterious maladies that run the course from dementia to crippling joint and bone afflictions. This 28 percent war-inflicted disability ratio vastly eclipses the 6.6 percent from WWII and triples the 9.6 percent from the Vietnam War.

The article quotes one veteran, Sgt. Brian Martin, explaining the effects: “I am an ex-paratrooper who needs a cane and wheelchair to get around. I get lost when I drive sometimes and forget where I am at sometimes.” The real shock comes when it is revealed that Martin is only 33 years old—and his life is toast. Was it nerve gas, fumes from burning oil wells, dust from the depleted uranium shells we fired, or the cocktail of experimental injections, drugs, and pesticides to which our troops were subjected? No one seems to know—and no one seems able to cure the illnesses. Obviously, however, those are not good enough reasons to stop us from subjecting hundreds of thousands of our young men and women to the unknown side-effects of modern warfare yet again.

Closer to home, Montana seems stuck in the Way Back Machine, too. As the legislative session looms, the so-called “solutions” to the state’s fiscal problems are all replays from the last century. First, there’s Gov. Judy Martz’ double-speak “tourist tax” that will be used to reduce the highest levels of income tax. But Martz is fooling very few people, regardless of what she calls this new sales tax. Even by her own admission, the majority of the tax would be paid by resident Montanans, among the poorest people in the nation. That the benefits would accrue to the richest among us is evident, damning, and wholly a throwback to the century of robber barons and copper kings.

Martz’ second proposal, to spend nearly $100 million from the Coal Tax Trust to balance her budget, is likewise an old and oft-tried bad idea. Recent polls show Montanans support the idea of using the Trust rather than raising taxes. No surprise, since everyone would rather find another source for revenue besides more taxes and fees. But running government is supposed to take the long, not short, view.

A hundred million from the Coal Trust will fill the gap for this session’s spending, but do the math—in a decade, the trust will be gone and so will the tens of millions of non-tax interest earnings it generates, as well as the state’s now-excellent bond ratings. We will have been reduced, through the actions of lame, desperate politicians, to hand-to-mouth status. Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck—and plenty of us have and do—would hardly recommend it as a great way to run a family, let alone a state.

Rear-view vision likewise seems to be dominating Martz’ concept of the state’s economic future. The New York Times just published an extensive article on the disastrous side-effects of coalbed methane extraction in Wyoming, where the Belle Fourche River “bubbles like champagne”—only the bubbles are flammable methane gas that has escaped capture and now contaminates the precious surface water of this arid region. Likewise, the massive pumping of saline groundwater required by coalbed methane production has drained aquifers, dried up springs, and poisoned both land and surface waters with salt. The same fate lies in store for Montana if Martz gets her wish to massively expand this highly destructive “industry” in our state. That Martz says we have to “do it right” is meaningless rhetoric, since virtually everywhere the extraction methods have been practiced, the results have been and continue to be cataclysmic. And just like in the past, this new degradation will be our shameful legacy to future generations.

But hey, whether our politicians are driving in the rear-view mirror or not, 2003 is upon us. These so-called “leaders” seem incapable of generating new ideas for the 21st century, thus condemning us to living a Mobius strip existence of continually repeating the mistakes of the past over and over and over again—until we run out of money, energy, resources, and hope. Happy New Year ahead? Not likely.

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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