Role call 

Montana's legislators are off to see the wizard

Like Dorothy and friends in The Wizard of Oz, the 2003 Legislature is off on a journey into the mysterious unknown, headed down the Yellow Brick Road and hoping to find the Wizard who will solve their problems. They have only 90 working days to do so and the clock is ticking. Whether they will find the courage, heart, and brains to pull off their quest, no one knows. But one thing is sure, the fiscal twister has hit, spinning everything wildly out of control—and they’re not in Kansas anymore.

The cast of stars this time around is huge, so there’s no need for just one Tin Man, just one straw-stuffed Scarecrow, or just one Cowardly Lion. Let your imagination run for a minute and you’ll undoubt- edly bring a host of players to mind who can fill those roles. No brains, no heart, no courage? Jeez, the options are almost limitless. Clueless Dorothys wandering in a strange land looking for a mere quarter billion dollars? They’re everywhere. And Toto—who will play the yappy little dog? Well, no need to speculate on that.

And then there are the flying monkeys, swooping down to terrorize the brave little band on their perilous journey to Oz. Let’s see, who could the flying monkeys be? How about the legion of corporate lobbyists? Sure, they fit the bill just right, skimming in out of the balconies, screeching and flapping, claiming they will wreak economic havoc if they don’t get what they want. Is it any wonder, in the face of such terrifying presences, that past legislatures have simply thrown up their collective hands and surrendered on so many critical decisions? Electricity deregulation, tax cuts, “economic incentives,” trashing environmental protections, why, the list is practically endless. Yes, those without heart, or brains, or courage, have given and given and given to the flying monkeys in hopes of placating them. But guess what? They’re back—and they’re screeching for more.

Or how about the Munchkins? Do we have Munchkins running around the Capitol? You bet. Only these cute little squeaky-voiced urchins are like flying monkeys in disguise. Remember the Lollipop Kids? In the Montana legislative version of Oz, there’s always someone promising to give lollipops to the good people of Montana—if only we give them something in return. Let’s see, does the Governor’s highly-funded Office of Economic Development fit the bill? Oh, it does! Lollipops for all, if only we give the richest even more of what little we have left. How’s about a nice tax break for the top income bracket? What? You can’t afford to run the state? No problem—just slap a sales tax on the dumb saps at the bottom of the heap to make up the difference and stand back—here comes the Lollipop Truck right up to the Capitol steps.

And then, of course, we have the Wicked Witches. To tell the truth, there are so many who could qualify for this role that it makes for a casting dilemma. Montana’s Wicked Witches are usually those who already have plenty of land, water, and money of their own. And these Wicked Witches shed no tears over the tough cuts they will have to dole out to those in need. What’s the matter little ones, are you scared, cold, hungry, or ill? Is your water polluted by industrial and mining toxins? What’s that, you can’t breathe the stinking air downwind of the latest Polluto-Max plant? Tough. In a weak moment we might think about helping, but you see, we’ve given all we could spare to our rich friends and there’s nothing left for you. Buwahaha!

But as we all know, despite facing terrifying events and seemingly un-winnable odds, Dorothy and her pals eventually do make it to Oz. Where, as we also know, they find out there really is no Wizard—just a little fat guy behind a screen who controls a smoke- and fire-belching artifice specially designed to intimidate any who are bold or foolish enough to approach The Almighty Oz. And this, of course, is the real moral of the story.

Right now, no one knows who will have the courage to pull back the curtain and expose the phony Wizard, to stand against further degradation of our state, to demand a fair shake for all Montanans. No one knows who will have the heart to make sure those in need are not forgotten, that the aged and infirm are cared for, that the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the cold made warm. No one knows who will have the brains to set Montana right, to find the way to structural stability in a fiscal system that has too long been at the mercy of cruel corporate masters and global market manipulations.

Just as in the original tale, somewhere along the Yellow Brick Road, heroes who didn’t know they were heroes will arise. Those who are afraid to speak will find their brave voices. Others will find the heart to do what’s right—not just what’s politically expedient. And some will find the courage to stand against the status quo and demand a new and better day for Montanans. No Wizard will give them these traits with a wave of a magic wand. Instead, hearts and courage and brains will come from within those we’ve sent down the Yellow Brick Road to Helena. Or at least that is our great hope at the beginning of this brief but perilous adventure.

And in the end, after all is said and done, our Dorothys will click their heels together and come home. Not back to Auntie Em’s Kansas farm, but back to Missoula, Billings, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte, and all the other towns and hamlets across the broad state of Montana. Will they live happily ever after?

No one knows that, either. But if they find the heart and courage and brains, maybe we all will. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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