Ochenski: Starting Fresh 

2002: A great chance for new approaches

2001 is finally over—and not a minute too soon. Here in Montana, we started the year with a weak governor and a Republican-dominated Legislature in turmoil over the economic consequences of a deregulation ideology gone bad. We end the year still in turmoil, with the same weak governor presiding over dysfunctional state agencies, a precarious budget, and our continuing position at the bottom of the economic barrel. Given the disparate balance sheet between bad and good in the last year, most Montanans will shed no tears to leave ’01 in the past. With 2002 staring us in the eye, however, now would be a great time to learn from our mistakes and make some course corrections to steer our state into a better year ahead.

One good place to start would be to reverse Montana’s third-world relationship with corporations. We have all read or heard about “developing countries,” in which multinational corporations run rampant over indigenous people, tear out the valuable natural resources, exploit the work force, and leave an environmental disaster in their wake. Sound familiar? It should. Montana’s experience at the hands of the Anaconda Company and its minions set the pattern for the global corporate pillage that continues unabated today. And what do we have to show for it? An enormous pit full of toxic water, graveyards filled with bodies broken by mines and smelters, and the dubious distinction of being home to the nation’s largest Superfund site that follows a dead river for a hundred miles from Butte to Missoula. As the saying goes, “they got the gold, and we got the shaft.”

You would think we might have learned something from this dreadful experience, but the 2001 Legislature, in concert with a governor who said she would be “the lapdog of industry,” seems to have evaded enlightenment. Instead, desperate to squeeze success from the continuing string of failures generated by their free-market ideology, Republican lawmakers and Governor Martz have gone overboard to literally give the state’s environment and natural resources away to corporate pirates. Take power plants, for instance. Environmental review and regulation has been “streamlined” for energy development. Despite the long-standing reality that Montana produces almost twice as much power within its borders as it consumes, our leaders, like corrupt, third-world dictators, have once again laid the state open to corporate exploitation. Only this time, citizens are fighting back. Already an initiative to overthrow the Repub’s main energy legislation has qualified for the November ballot, while other initiatives to buy back our hydroelectric dams and repeal electricity deregulation are in the works.

In the same vein, it might be a good time to actually add up the losses and gains from the current taxing regime. Theoretically, tilting the tax breaks toward large industries was supposed to produce a flood of new, high-paying jobs for Montana. But after more than a decade of continually shifting the tax burden off of large corporations and onto the backs of citizens, where is the flood of great jobs? Simply put, it didn’t happen. Instead, we have created a service-sector economy where low wages prevail, small businesses struggle, and Montanans provide a handy, disposable workforce for megacorporations that laugh all the way to their out-of-state banks. In the meantime, education (read: your kids, their future) gets the short end of the funding stick because, if you believe our current batch of politicos, the state just can’t afford it. If the tax-incentive crowd is so sure they’re right, why not take the opportunity in 2002 to compare how much we’re giving out with how much we’re getting back? If the equation comes out as badly as I suspect, perhaps it would be a good time to rethink the tax-structure adjustments of the past and start balancing the taxes in favor of our citizens, small businesses, and educational opportunities for our kids.

2002 might also be a good time for Montanans to think about working with, instead of against, each other. Take ranchers and environmentalists, for example. While ranchers and enviros go at each other like banshees, subdivision and “trophy-home” developers run rampant to the detriment of both. The rhetorical symbolism of environmental protection is easy to blame for rancher’s woes, but the much-needed discussion regarding the economic impacts due to consolidation in the meat packing industry goes largely ignored by our politicians. Enviros, after all, don’t set the price for beef in this country. The few giants left in the meatpacking world call those shots—and they control them very well. The same goes for other ag commodities. Can ranch operations have negative environmental results? Sure they can, but most can be remedied through modern management practices. 2002 would be a great year for enviros and ranchers to reexamine the basis of their disagreements and see if they remain valid in modern Montana. Since they have so many common values, working together would go a long way to ensure that the public benefits of ranching—like open space and wildlife habitat—will continue to exist. If they quit clubbing each other, enviros and ranchers might also find they have a little more time and energy to devote to that next subdivision or ridge-top trophy home.

Finally, the coming year offers an excellent opportunity for citizens to demand accountability from their politicians. We have all been drowned in partisan rhetoric for so long that most folks simply quit listening when politicos start talking. Unfortunately, the current condition of the state is the price we have paid for that political apathy. While it is far easier to pit Montanans against each other than to pull our vast and disparate state together on a common path, the results suggest it’s time for a change. Since 2002 is an election year, now might be a great time to let politicians know that if they want our votes (and they do), we want more than partisan games, baseless ideologies, and worn-out rhetoric in return.

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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