Montanans had best brace themselves for the end of what is undoubtedly one of the worst legislative sessions in the state’s recent history. Maybe it will end by the time this column hits print—or maybe it won’t. But how could we possibly know with no end in sight to the bitter partisan squabbling that turned a deliberative policymaking institution into a locker-room brawl between opposing teams? No matter. One way or another the blame game is about to start big time—and with it will come a political spin cycle that promises to be dizzying.
What we’re likely to hear is how great the Republicans are for trying to use some portion of the state’s projected billion-dollar surplus for permanent property tax relief. They will point fingers at the Democrats and say, as they have for so many years, that the party of tax and spend is at it again. To support their view, they will hold up the significant increases in government spending proposed by Gov. Schweitzer—and in this regard, they will be right. Schweitzer’s projected 22 percent increase in spending is nothing if not historic, and not historic in any particularly outstanding fashion.
For their part, the Democrats will fire back that it was the Republicans who decided to trash the budget process, shatter the spending bill into pieces and hold other bills hostage. They will also say the Republicans had no unified plan with which to replace the Schweitzer budget and hence, crippled the ability of the Legislature and administration to deliberate on the possible pros and cons, costs and benefits, and overall compatibility of critical legislation. On this, the Democrats will be right. The Republicans did blast the budget into pieces without a shred of a plan on how to view all those pieces as a cohesive whole.
The Republicans will also blast Gov. Schweitzer for his notable absences during the session. Just this week milk cartons started showing up in the Capitol with Schweitzer’s picture on them under the title “MISSING: Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, AKA ‘Mister Hollywood.’” Then the text: “Last seen: jet setting cross country to attend political fundraisers with lobbyists, movie stars and Hollywood moguls at 5 Star Restaurants in New York, D.C., Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.” And finally, “If found: please tell the Governor to come home—the Legislature is still in Session and there is still work to be done.”
Unfortunately, the Republicans will be right about this. Schweitzer, ever ready to set new “historical” records, has just done so. No other Montana governor in recent memory has been gone out of state so long during a legislative session. And quite frankly, it’s dumbfounding trying to figure out why Schweitzer felt his duty was not at the Capitol during Montana’s limited, biennial, 90-day session.
Traditionally—or perhaps I should say historically—the governor is the leader of his party during legislative sessions. To be sure the Legislature, which is an independent branch of government with every bit as much autonomy as the governor, elects its own leaders and wrangles in the chambers on a daily basis. But in the end, it’s the governor, who is elected to govern, who ultimately needs to interact with the Legislature on a regular basis—and especially in the final weeks when the major budget and policy bills are hammered out.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that didn’t happen this session. Schweitzer was largely arrogant and somewhat insulting in dealing with Republicans right from the beginning and has continued that pattern up to the end. It was two weeks into the session before the governor even met with the Republican Speaker of the House—and then only for a minute in the rotunda, not for a comprehensive talk to ascertain the needs and desires of the House Republicans. Even in the closing hours, despite the fact both men work (or are supposed to work) in the same building every day, their latest discussion was on a cell phone, not in person.
Montanans would be right to wonder if it’s time to crank out a job description for both the governor and legislative leaders, since sincere, respectful negotiation doesn’t seem to be what either side thinks they are being paid to do. Somehow, I suspect the Montana taxpayers who are funding this bizarre show would think differently about it. And they would have every right to expect those holding public office to measure up to the duties of the office, including talking to each other in person on a regular basis.
But that’s just the mechanics—wait till they start spinning the issues. As an example, we will hear how the Republicans killed the stream access bill, which they did. What we will not hear is that the Attorney General’s Opinion that found Montanans have every right under our constitution to access our own waters from public rights-of-way is, in fact, law unless it’s overturned by a court. So, while the Republicans killed the stream access bill, they didn’t kill stream access. Adding to the confusion, just recently Erik Iverson, former top staffer for Rep. Denny Rehberg and candidate for the Montana GOP’s chair, said that “the core philosophy of the Montana Republican Party” includes “access to hunting and fishing.”
Maybe Iverson meant paid access. Or maybe he’s just trying to steal away a popular issue from Schweitzer. If so, turnabout is fair play and Schweitzer’s proposed rebate for homeowners is, after all, a politically-popular move ripped off from former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot who did it a decade ago.
The whole panoply of issues will be marched before us, with each side claiming victory. But in the end, no matter how fast or wildly the politicos spin their raps, Montanans will likely fail to be impressed. They will be right, of course, but that won’t stop the tornado of political spin that is headed our way.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.