Past is prologue 

Will "The Great Slowdown" of the late '80s repeat itself?

It's the third week of the 2011 legislative session, and so far things are moving at a crawl. With more than 2,000 bill draft requests in the hopper—many of which were dropped in some time ago—seasoned legislative observers are wondering why so few bills are actually popping out. The reason might be found by looking back 22 years to the one-term governorship of Stan Stephens.

Stephens was elected governor in 1988—a year in which the Republicans had a fruitful electoral season not unlike last year's. Political newcomer Conrad Burns defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. John Melcher. Stephens defeated former Democratic Gov. Tom Judge, who was making a comeback bid. And Republicans took control of the state Senate. Democrats held the House with a two-vote majority.

Unlike recent Montana governors, Stephens came to office with a wealth of legislative experience and had a very good idea of how much money the state was spending and how. He had campaigned on a pledge to cut state government spending. If that sounds familiar, it should, since both the Republicans and their Tea Party pals ran on basically the same platform, which carried them to victory in November's election.

Those with good memories will recall that the '80s were not particularly good years for either the state or national economies, and state government was strapped for revenue. Outgoing governor Ted Schwinden, a Democrat, had basically robbed—or sought to rob—every possible pot of money to keep the state afloat. If that, too, sounds familiar, it's with good reason, because the current successor to the office, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, is doing the same thing.

The reality is that while it's very, very easy to talk about cutting government spending, "trimming fat" and finding "waste and abuse," it really isn't all that easy pulling it off. Just as our current Legislature is struggling to try and put together a balanced budget, and will continue to struggle over the next three months, so too did the 1989 session, which coincided with Stephens' first year in office.

Nonetheless, Stephens, despite having to deal with the slim Democratic majority in the House, determinedly sought drastic cuts. But as those who have worked in the political arena for any amount of time know, the physics of politics is real—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The reaction to Stephens' budget-cutting efforts soon became apparent. Stephens told state employees he was going to cut their pay, reduce their numbers and "streamline" their procedures, and that was translated to "more work to do with fewer, less well-paid workers to do it."

Having enjoyed decades of Democratic governors, strong unions and equitable pay schedules, thousands of state employees were suddenly facing an unfamiliar and unwanted future. As they say in the game, "employee morale" plunged, and little by little, almost undetectably, the entire productivity of state government declined in "The Great Slowdown." And who could blame them? How excited and ambitious did anyone expect state employees to be when they had become targeted by their own governor and legislative bodies rather than praised for their work?

By the time the 1989 Legislature was complete, the public, like the state employees, took offense to the entire process. As noted in a 1989 Associated Press article, a poll conducted by the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research gave Stephens a miserable 30 percent approval rating, with 43 percent disapproving of the job he was doing as governor. Even worse, the Legislature managed only 29 percent approval with a whopping 53 percent disapproval. Ironically, 1989 was Montana's Statehood Centennial—but that year's Legislature was not to be celebrated.

Eventually, Stephens took refuge in his office. In the words of political watchers of the time, he "bunkered up" for the remainder of his four-year term and did not seek re-election.

Jump forward 22 years to the 2011 session. Once again Montana is riding rough fiscal waters, once again a governor is trying to find any and all possible ways to balance the budget. And once again, the Republicans are on a rampage and have proposed cuts ranging from 5-10 percent or higher for state employees. It is also important to remember that these same state employees have had their wages frozen for two years already and, even under Gov. Schweitzer's proposal, won't see a 1 percent increase until next year. The 3 percent raise Schweitzer has proposed—but that may not survive the session—won't even kick in till 2013.

It is against this backdrop that the Republican-dominated Legislature takes the stage. With an overwhelming 68-32 majority in the House and a very solid 28-22 majority in the Senate, the Republicans are vowing to slash government spending. Add to that the proposal by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, to cap state salaries at twice the average Montana household income and you have a disgruntled and de-energized pool of state workers who are again being told to do more with less.

So how does this tie into the snail's pace of the 2011 session? Well, how enthusiastic would you be about crafting measures that threaten your own livelihood, give polluters a free hand with the environment, outlaw personal choice, overturn citizen-passed initiatives, or gut the Montana Constitution's guarantee of a clean and healthful environment? Not very.

It's totally possible that speculation about another "Great Slowdown" in response to the Republican efforts to chop state government is off base. Perhaps there's no decline in productivity and the session is simply moving slowly because there are so many inexperienced legislators. But it's also possible—and logical—that it is real. We have, after all, seen it before.

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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