Schweitzer's last stand 

Political columnist George Ochenski previews a legislative session that promises to be contentious

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Taxation

Both Schweitzer and the Republican leadership say new taxes are off the table for this session. In fact, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in projected revenue shortfall, Schweitzer says he supports getting rid of the business equipment tax for all except the very largest of Montana businesses. What's likely to happen, however, is that Republicans will take the governor's proposal and expand it to all businesses—which will throw Schweitzer's budget even further out of balance.

Ironically, neither the governor nor the Republican leadership want to end the tax holiday for new oil and gas wells that exempts the first 18 months of production—typically when they get the most out of the wells—from taxation. So the oil and gas companies in the highly profitable Bakken Formation will continue to get the tax break—and Montana's other taxpayers will have to pick up the slack.

click to enlarge Rep. Mike Milburn (R-Cascade) - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER


Education

Besides the predictable fight over education spending, the single greatest battle in the education arena this session is likely to be over the establishment of private charter schools, and issuing tax vouchers for those who wish to send their children there instead of public schools. Public education advocates will claim this amounts to funding private and perhaps religious private schools with public revenue. Charter school advocates will claim they have a right to send their children to non-public schools because they believe they'll get a better education. It'll be a battle, to be sure, and the outcome is far from predictable.



Medical marijuana

As most readers know, Montana's Medical Marijuana Initiative received more votes than any of the politicians running for office when it was approved in 2004. Since that time, almost 30,000 Montanans have followed the prescribed process to obtain the legal right to use marijuana for medical purposes—most commonly, chronic pain.

Not coincidentally, Montana's medical marijuana business rapidly expanded to meet the demand, with large commercial greenhouses and backyard plots now in virtually every city and town.

Critics say the law is being abused and allowing what should be illegal drugs to those who merely want to use them recreationally. To bolster their case, they point to the antics of medical marijuana promoter Jason Christ, the owner of the Montana Caregivers Network who smoked a large pipe openly in front of the Capitol when he came to testify at an interim committee hearing, and who is currently facing criminal charges of felony intimidation in Missoula. Christ's organization is responsible for helping thousands of patients register with the state program after meeting with doctors through video teleconference, rather than with in-person visits.

Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United and one of the primary backers of the successful 2004 initiative, understands the challenges of the upcoming session.

"With two-dozen medical cannabis-connected bills in the works, most of them draconian, we fear an overreaction by the Legislature that could make a bad situation worse for everyone, especially patients, since they will make it harder for true patients to access medical cannabis for their conditions," he says. "But making it harder is not the same thing as making it function correctly and in line with what Montanans want and what would work best for all concerned. So we're teaming up with other cannabis-related groups in Montana to coordinate an ambitious public and patient education effort to help the Legislature develop and adopt changes that will truly allow the program to work as voters intended."

Daubert and his fellow advocates for medical marijuana will have their work cut out for them. Speaker of the House Milburn, for instance, has already submitted HB 161, a bill to repeal the entire medical marijuana law.



Health care

Montana's U.S. Sen. Max Baucus was the architect of the federal health insurance reform act signed into law by President Obama last year. Baucus has continually lauded the benefits of the measure, but it has been met with almost universal opposition from Republicans nationwide. Montana's GOP is no exception, and repealing what they call "Obamacare" has become a top priority for Republicans in both Congress and state legislatures this year. There is already a bill in the hopper to force Attorney General Steve Bullock to join the 20 other states that are currently suing the federal government over the health care law in Florida courts.

Ironically, the effort to repeal the Obama health care law has spilled over into other arenas and now there are suggestions that perhaps Montana should consider radically revamping its entire Medicaid program. And that says nothing about Schweitzer's effort to privatize at least a portion of Medicaid services. Yes, that would be a Democratic governor supporting privatization of currently public services.

click to enlarge Rep. Jon Sesso (D-Butte) - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER


Wildlife

This summer's decision by Federal District Judge Donald Molloy to put wolves back on the endangered species list has spawned a host of bills to counter the ruling. In the meantime, a recently announced proposal by the Schweitzer administration to place quarantined Yellowstone Park bison in state wildlife management areas or in federal wilderness areas is being met head-on with bills that will prohibit any such move.



Moving forward

Anyone who tries to look into the crystal ball and accurately predict the outcome of a legislative session this early in the game has their work cut out for them. But for what it's worth, here goes.

It's highly likely the Republicans will indeed cut Schweitzer's budget instead of transferring all the funds he has proposed. How and where they'll cut remains a mystery, since the biggest chunk of money will always be in education, corrections and health and social services. But thanks to the many burrs under the saddle on environmental regulation, don't be surprised to see cuts directed there as well.

The health care debacle will only worsen, perhaps significantly. With what is expected to be a gridlocked U.S. Congress for the next two years at least, the entire national health care effort may well simply grind to a halt.

Social issues such as abortion and gay rights appear to be taking a back seat as Republican priorities, but undoubtedly individual legislators will carry their torches on these bedrock conservative issues.

It looks like some rough seas ahead for Schweitzer. As a lame-duck governor, his power is considerably reduced since the end of his final term in office is in sight. Thanks to his wide swings in positions on any number of issues, both Schweitzer and Democrats in general are going to have a tough time derailing Republican proposals that appear to coincide with the "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra.

But remember the physics of politics—every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the Legislature goes too crazy in any one direction, you can expect the opposition to rise accordingly. In the case of the environment and natural resource extraction, it would be wise to remember that Montana's citizens already approved the cyanide heap-leach ban by initiative and would likely pass other measures to protect our state's unique and precious environmental assets. The same goes for the medical marijuana "reforms" being contemplated. The people, by a wide margin, approved the use of medical marijuana, and efforts to simply repeal the measure are likely to backfire.

Four months from now, we'll see how it all turns out.

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