Ochenski: Which way will she go? 

Gearing up for a shootout at the not-O.K. corral

If you thought the first half of the 2003 legislative session seemed disjointed and weird, you’re right. Not in recent memory has any legislative majority decided to toss out their own governor’s budget on their first day in town—but that’s what happened way back at the beginning of January. Now, heading into the last 45 days of the session, the level of cooperation and communication between the executive and the Legislature has disintegrated further at the daunting prospect of filling Montana’s $230 million budget deficit. As tensions and tempers rise during the second half, a “shootout at the not-O.K. corral” between the Legislature and Gov. Martz seems unavoidable.

The trouble became openly evident just prior to the session when Speaker of the House Doug Mood blamed Gov. Martz’ unpopularity and the failed Senate campaign of drop-out candidate Mike Taylor for the loss of Republican seats in the House. Those losses whittled the once-hefty Republican majority from its high of more than two-thirds of the Legislature to a thin six-vote margin in the House.

The shift of seats considerably strengthened the power of the Demo minority and made Martz’ plan to balance the budget by siphoning $93 million from the Coal Trust a virtual impossibility. Just prior to its break, the Repub majorities slashed Martz’ Coal Trust raid by two-thirds but were still only able to garner 55 of the 75 votes needed to bust the Trust. Tellingly, when the Republican sponsor of the amendment was questioned during debate about what Gov. Martz thought of the significant reduction to her proposal, he replied that he didn’t know because he hadn’t talked to the administration about it.

One might wonder how Gov. Martz figures she needs $93 million to balance the budget but the House Repubs say $31.5 million will do the job? The answer, it would seem, lies in the potential for raising new revenue by upping so-called “sin taxes” on cigs and alcohol, kicking in a hydropower generation tax, or implementing some of the Legislature’s other revenue ideas.

Left to their own devices, it is likely the minority Dems would join with Repubs to support some of these revenue-raising options and the Legislature could accomplish its task through a combination of new money and government spending cuts. But that assumes that Gov. Martz, and her coterie of bizarre legislative proposals would just go away. And that, as they say, “ain’t happening.” If anything, the governor has become more of a thorn in the Legislature’s side recently. Rather than offer solutions that can work with the makeup of the current session, Martz has provided a puzzling string of pronouncements and threats that promise to hogtie whatever progress the session might otherwise make.

Faced with her campaign pledge of no new taxes, this troubled governor has waffled back and forth in the face of the obvious need, and just as obvious desire, for the Legislature to raise some new money. Initially, Martz said she wouldn’t sign any new tax bills into law. This dodge around her silly “no new taxes” pledge would allow tax bills to become law without the governor’s signature. But make no mistake, laws they would become with or without Martz’ imprimatur.

To further confuse the issue, Martz decided to propose a new sales tax that she facetiously dubbed a “tourist tax”—even though most of the money would come from Montanans. But true to her contrary nature, Martz decided none of the new money the tax would raise would go to help the state out of its budgetary quandary. Instead, her proposal would sock it to workaday Montanans with the new sales tax so the wealthiest among us could enjoy an inordinate income tax break, which does nothing to help the state out of its budget hole.

Sensing, perhaps, her growing alienation from the process, the governor came out on the last day of the first half of the session with an iron-fisted promise to veto any new tax bills. Yes, I said “veto,” which means she will not simply allow such bills to become law without her signature, but will try to kill them with her veto power. Martz can only “try” to kill them because, in fact, it is possible for the Legislature to override a governor’s veto by garnering two-thirds majorities of both the Senate and House. Already, there are those who predict such veto overrides will become commonplace as the cooler Legislative heads from both parties hammer out a mutually-acceptable revenue package in their efforts to balance the budget and get out of Helena in the next 45 days.

Of course, it is possible that our clueless and mercurial governor may change her mind once more, come to her senses, and face the state’s fiscal reality rather than continue to bunker up in her office and bark at the Legislature. Then again, given the large number or slips and falls in her short tenure as governor, it is just as likely that she will not. Either way, it is clear that something, somewhere has to give, or the 2003 Legislature won’t balance the budget as it is constitutionally required to do in the time remaining.

Given the flickerings of cooperation between the majority Repubs and the minority Dems during the first half of the session, there is reason for cautious optimism. Some of the contentious bills to overturn citizen-passed initiatives or further trash the environment are already dead. Others, like Sen. Shea’s effort to force a re-vote on the cyanide mining ban are on life support and may soon expire. With such nasties out of the way, it will be easier for legislative leaders from both parties to hammer out the compromises the state so desperately needs.

On the other hand, if Martz continues to bark and more ugly bills split the Legislature, there’s a good chance no one will be left standing after the shootout at the not-O.K. corral.

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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