Ochenski 

Hazardous waste: Toxic politics pollute an ugly legislative session

Day by day the clock is ticking down on the 2007 legislative session. And day by day, the toxic politics between the Republicans, the Democrats and the Governor’s Office continue to produce far more smoke than light, while leaving Montana’s populace confused, confounded and, on an increasing basis, disgusted with the whole shebang.

House Republicans have so far kept to their course. They threatened to break up the major budget bill into its constituent pieces and did so. They threatened to knock back Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s alarmingly large 22 percent increase in state spending and, so far, have significantly trimmed the proposed spending for state agencies. Just this week, they savaged the governor’s proposal for all-day kindergarten, literally shredding the bill the Democratic-controlled Senate sent their way.

The House Republicans are following Majority Leader Mike Lange in his hard-nosed approach to telling the governor and Democrats what they can do with their much-flaunted, exhaustively-defended budget. Lange, who is a union pipefitter after all, has done just what you might expect: He’s taken a tool with which he is undoubtedly familiar, the monkey wrench, and tossed it into the gears of Schweitzer’s legislative machine. Thus, Republicans become the monkey wrench gang, not solving much in the way of problems, but dead-set on bringing Schweitzer’s Demo juggernaut grinding to a halt as broken pieces fly in all directions.

For their part, the Democrats in the House have been playing their own version of Demo-lition derby. When the Republicans brought one of their major spending bills to the floor last week, the Democrats voted as a block to deny its passage. Those who’ve been watching politics for a while have every right to note that Democrats voting in unison is something rarely seen. As Will Rogers famously quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.” And indeed, for Democrats to lock up tight on anything is somewhat of a miracle—let alone to lock up against spending the state’s projected billion-dollar surplus.

The Democrats’ strategy, if you can call it that, seemed to be to force Republicans to abandon their plan to split the budget into multiple bills and resurrect the governor’s single budget bill. To that end, not only aren’t the Dems voting to pass the Republican appropriations bills, they are also refraining from offering the dozens of amendments such bills usually see when they are subjected to the scrutiny and debate of the House’s 100 members.

Perhaps there is some great wisdom in taking this path, but if so, it’s very tough to see. Every piece of legislation, no matter who sponsored it or supports it, deserves careful scrutiny and the opportunity for amendment during open debate by the entire House and/or Senate. Playing Demo-lition derby with issues that are crucial—some even life and death for certain constituencies—ignores the legislature’s overriding responsibility to the populace at large, regardless of their political affiliation.

But the clock is ticking while the games go on, and every day brings new deadlines for clearing bills out of committees and transmitting them from the House to the Senate and vice versa. As the toxic standoff continues, those deadlines can either be met, in which case the bills continue to proceed, or they can be missed, in which case the bills die. The legislature can also vote to suspend those deadlines, which it often does, to allow the late transmittal or introduction of bills. But to do so would require the House and Senate to agree to jointly suspend their rules, and the way things are going, that possibility seems as great a fantasy as the Republicans rolling over and resurrecting Schweitzer’s singular spending bill.

The budget battle isn’t the only game in town. Last week Republicans asked where Schweitzer’s energy bills are and when he expects them to be introduced. Evan Barrett, the governor’s point man on energy development, glibly replied the administration was still working on them because they wanted them to be done right. Needless to say, since energy development has been Schweitzer’s single-minded focus for most of the last two years, it’s more than a little puzzling why his administration wouldn’t have had its package of energy bills ready long ago. In fact, Republicans and Democrats alike should wonder why these particular policy bills weren’t drafted long before the session started so Montanans could take a good hard look at what’s coming our way in the energy arena.

The Republicans may recall the consequences of Gov. Racicot’s support for the late introduction of the massive and complex utility deregulation measure. Not only did deregulation fail to receive either the scrutiny or debate it deserved, it resulted in Montanans losing control of our own energy resources—and now we are being gouged for whatever price the market will bear. In the end, it also brought the former Republican control of the state crashing down.

Does such a scenario hang like the Sword of Damocles over the Democrats? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely to have the broad and disastrous results of deregulation. On the other hand, the last time a Democrat governor brought in a big energy idea, it was Ted Schwinden. His great idea? Cut the coal severance tax in half so we could compete with Wyoming. The result? We have lost and continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars that should have been deposited in the Coal Tax Trust, where they would continue to earn tax-free interest for the state in perpetuity.

As we have painfully learned, mistakes can and do happen—and they happen more often when toxic politics takes over and votes are cast out of blind loyalty to political parties instead of on the merits of the legislation. We deserve better. In the end, we’re the ones who must live with the consequences of these decisions, and we’re the ones who wind up paying for them.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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