In 1992, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler published a book titled Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. Its main thrust became buzzwords for the era: more "effective and efficient" government. Thanks to the passage of HB642 in the last legislative session, Montana's legislators are once again attempting to make government more efficient and effective. The question now, as it was in '92, is: more efficient and effective for whom?
The message of Reinventing Government is well described in the first paragraph of its flysheet. "A revolution is stirring in America. People are angry at governments that spend more but deliver less, frustrated with bureaucracies that give them no control, and tired of politicians who raise taxes and cut services but fail to solve the problems we face." If that seems like a sound bite from Obama, from any of the Republicans seeking to challenge him or from the Tea Party, it's not just déjà vu all over again. Whenever they're faced with particularly challenging times or running against an incumbent from a different party, politicians endlessly repeat these themes as the path to enlightenment.
One of the great tragedies of Montana's move to enact term limits was a wholesale loss of institutional memory of what's been tried before and what succeeded and what has failed in the policy arena. So it's no surprise to find that, once again, we have a legislative interim committee, along with a $100,000 general fund appropriation, seeking "effective and efficient government."
What those with good memories and some time in Montana may recall, however, is that former governor Marc Racicot took the bait whole hog in his first term in the mid '90s and announced that he was reorganizing state government to "make it more effective and efficient."
Racicot appointed committees to study the executive branch agencies and make recommendations for how they could be changed to meet his goals. After they'd been meeting for months, determining mission statements for the agencies and reviewing budgets and functions, Racicot took action at the' 95 state legislature, which was dominated by two-thirds Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
Suddenly, the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences was dissolved, the environmental functions going to the new Department of Environmental Quality and the health functions going to a vastly expanded Department of Public Health and Human Services. The Department of State Lands, which managed Montana's trust lands, was rolled into the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, while various functions of other agencies were likewise jostled.
There are some advantages to executive branch reorganization that have little to do with more efficient or effective government. When you create a new agency, as was done with Environmental Quality, the old levels of government success or failure disappear, so there's no way to determine if the new bureaucracy is any more effective or efficient than the one it replaced. That's handy for politicians. They can claim success without having to prove it—which is exactly what Racicot and the Republicans did.
The truth was somewhat different. Former Water Quality Bureau Enforcement Chief Kevin Keenan told reporters, shortly before retiring after 24 years in state regulatory agencies, that "the reorganization worked precisely to eliminate 20 years of history in Montana. We've taken a major step backwards in Montana in how we enforce the law. Now we give the impression that the law is somehow voluntary and discretionary. We'll pay the price."
In the same session in which that executive-branch reorganization occurred, the Republican-dominated legislature enacted two new laws that radically changed Montana's former non-degradation water quality standards, as well as a host of measures intended to "streamline" state permitting for mines and other resource extraction industries under the rubric of making government "more efficient and effective."
We're paying the price today. Golden Sunlight Mine is a great example. While the bills were being heard, industry-friendly legislators and lobbyists were lauding the mine as "new" mining, not the old and polluting mining of the past. Today, Golden Sunlight is responsible for pollution of groundwater that is so bad it will have to be treated in perpetuity. And you know, perpetuity is a long time to pay any price.
When Gov. Brian Schweitzer took office, one of the first things he promised was to make government more effective and efficient by "streamlining" permitting. Here's some of the language of the measure that set up the new legislative interim committee's goals on natural resources:
"The study must attempt to determine areas of efficiency and effectiveness in the following areas: natural resources, particularly incentives for and impediments to development, adding value, transporting, and conservation. Concepts for consideration include but are not limited to:
"(i) the elimination of redundant regulatory processes;
"(ii) the methods and means to facilitate the timely review and authorization of projects, including mitigating post-review and post-authorization administrative or legal challenges;
"(iii) alternatives for strengthening the threshold of legal standing for purposes of challenging procedural or substantive permitting decisions;
"(iv) options for creating and using electronic forms and authorizations to streamline project startup, reporting, monitoring, continuation, and expansion."
You probably noticed there was no mention of actually protecting Montana's environmental quality in there.
That's not coincidental, coming from a Republican-dominated legislature to a Democratic governor who embraces natural resource exploitation with at least as much vigor as the Republican governors he follows.
It's not déjà vu. It's actually happening again.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.