Come Monday the Montana Legislature convenes for yet another “special session” to balance the state’s budget. Truth be told, there is nothing “special” about these affairs. They are quick, dirty, and usually leave the public confused, dismayed, and disgusted. Unfortunately for all Montanans, the coming debacle promises to fit that mold exactly. No matter what anyone has to say, the House and Senate Republican majorities will ram through whatever bills they think are necessary (and politically beneficial to the November elections) and then go home. In other words, the public can expect to be ignored—and they will be.
Forget any illusions that this latest batch of “leaders” will listen intently to testimony, weigh all the input, and then act according to the will of the people. The hope that affected citizens or groups would be given any credence was quickly dispelled at the bogus “pre-session” hearings of the House Appropriations committee last week. Virtually no one voiced even a shred of support for the proposed budget measures. Instead, most of those who testified opposed the bills and urged the handful of legislators on the committee to take another course. True to form, they were mostly ignored and in some cases even hassled by the very people who call themselves “representatives” of the people.
Like many citizens, you probably thought there wouldn’t be formal hearings until the Legislature convened. That’s the way it used to be, back in the era of open government in Montana. But in the new era of Republican secrecy and corporate domination of Montana’s lawmaking, pre-session “hearings” are all the rage. For almost 90 percent of the Legislature, the knowledge of the recent hearings is based solely on whatever thin slices of the action the media decided to cover.
Considering the impacts of these proposals, you might think it would make sense if more legislators were on hand to listen to and talk with the citizens who came to the Capitol. But when the session itself is merely a formality to adopt the plans devised by our brilliant (just kidding) leaders, you can’t have “the little people” mucking things up with their concerns about the future. Instead of talking about the real impacts of these decisions—and the credible options that may exist—we are likely to be treated to the same old, tired rhetoric that has defined Montana politics in recent times.
The Republicans, who have been almost totally in charge of the state for the last 10 years, will not consider rescinding any of the significant tax breaks they have doled out to their buddies. Sure, the list of those who benefited looks a lot like the list of the largest corporations doing business in Montana, but so what? Rethinking those measures and maybe adjusting them according to their actual efficacy would take too much time. It is easier by far to simply stick with the blind ideology that what’s good for big corporations is good for Montana. If there’s not enough money left to run the state, well, then stick it to those who are least able to fight back: “the little people.” As we have seen throughout the Racicot, Bush, and Martz administrations, the standard operating procedure is to take credit for everything good, deny accountability for anything bad, and find some way to blame all the problems on the Democrats.
For their part, the Democrats are likely to have a hell of a time in the coming week. As the minority party, there is little they can actually do to affect the outcome of the session because they just don’t have the votes. The Democrats didn’t get us into this mess, nor are they going to get us out of it. But they could be the loyal opposition to the Republican juggernaut—and are likely to be the only voice for “the little people.” Sticking with that mission and clearly delineating how and why Montana is in its current predicament would help dispel the failed myths of the Republican economic development policies.
Unfortunately, it’s going to be tough for Demo leaders to “herd their cats” and pull it off. As Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized party, I’m a Democrat.” And sure enough, the Demo image is blurred already. Unable to sit by and watch programs for the needy be slashed, proposals for a host of new taxes—including a sales tax—have already surfaced from Demo lawmakers. In spite of the fact that none of these new revenue proposals is likely to pass, you can bet the Repubs will once again pin the “tax and spend” tail on the Demo donkey. You can also bet it will be pointed out time and time again prior to the November elections as the Repubs try to hold on to their majorities.
What won’t be pointed out, unfortunately, is the solution to Montana’s problems. Come January, the state will face an estimated $250 million budgetary shortfall, dwarfing the situation that prompted the special session—and those estimates were made prior to the stock market crash. No one, not even the most die-hard Repub government hater, believes we can “cut our way out” of that much red ink when we fully face the chickens that have come home to roost.
It is now clear that one-party control of Montana has seriously unbalanced the political process, crushed debate, and led to policies that are detrimental to our future. If citizens expect their concerns to be heard, realistic discussion of the issues, and genuine compromise in lawmaking, it is equally clear that political balance must be restored to Montana’s public policy arena. No matter how disgusting you find it, keep an eye on what happens in the coming week. Citizens can be ignored in the special session, but they cannot be ignored in the voting booth. Our chance to restore some balance comes in November. We’d do well to take it.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.