Telling It Like It Is 

What we learned about Martz from her State of the State speech

New governor Judy Martz’s first State of the State speech was intended to be “a pep talk” for Montanans, and in that respect she undoubtedly succeeded. Martz worked through most of an hour, pumping away like the Olympic skater she once was, urging Montanans to face our uncertain future with the resiliency of her own Butte heritage. Unlike her predecessor Marc Racicot, whose feel-good speeches often dodged the harsh realities of the state’s condition, Martz did a pretty fair job of covering the many problems plaguing Montana, saying, “the Martz administration will tell it like it is. We will not shy away from the shortcomings of the past. We will not pretend things are better or worse than they are.”

To fire up the crowd, the governor opened her speech by praising efforts to bring economic development to unlikely locations. She applauded such diverse activities as Sidney’s Moo Juice Dairy and Butte’s poly-silicone processing plant and called them “reminders of the potential for greatness” in Montana. Without missing a stroke, the governor then segued into extending economic development efforts to Native Americans and pledged to “visit every reservation in Montana by the end of the summer to better understand their needs, but more importantly, their culture.”

Martz asked the Legislature to “send to my desk immediately” a bill that returns human remains and burial items to tribal descendents and urged the body to “pay attention” to the good ideas of Indian legislators such as Carol Juneau (D-Browning). And, even though Martz mispronounced Juneau’s name, the new governor spent far more time recognizing tribal nations than any recent governor, Republican or Democrat.

From that high and hopeful point however, she skated onto much thinner ice. Using last summer’s fires as an example of the need for forest management, Martz pledged to work with the Bush administration to “return stewardship responsibility to our capable hands where it belongs.”

And, in a hint at what “stewardship” might mean to Martz, the governor says she will “support environmentally safe mining, timber harvest and oil and gas production on our public lands.” While industry greeted Martz’s announcement with applause, environmentalists fear this will mean drilling the Rocky Mountain Front for oil and gas, more road-building and logging on national and state forests, and more unreclaimed open pit mines.

The governor’s plan to deal with the disastrous results of electricity deregulation however, pleased neither enviros nor industry. Montana, as a “net exporter” of electricity, has always generated more power than we need. But the governor says the state needs more transmission lines, more natural gas pipelines, and more generation facilities to be part of a “regional” solution that will require “streamlining the permitting process” to bring the new generation online. While Gov. Martz pledged to work within existing environmental laws, her support for legislative plans to alter both the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Major Facility Siting Act—the foundations of the state’s environmental permitting processes—seem to contradict her pledge.

Industry, meanwhile, is anything but united behind the “supply side” solution of more generation. Instead, Montana’s major electricity consuming industries seem much more interested in obtaining reliable, cheap, Montana-made hydroelectricity—just like in the good old days before deregulation—than buying into expensive new generating capacity. While the skyrocketing price of power has already eliminated hundreds of industrial jobs, those businesses trying to survive say they need affordable electricity now—not in some uncertain number of years in the future and not based on a free market theory that, in application, is rapidly bankrupting California’s utilities and consumers. The problem, they say, is not in supply, but with price gouging on the part of Pennsylvania Power and Light, the company that bought Montana Power’s dams.

While good intentions for Montana filled the governor’s speech, everyone knows that this year the best of intentions are running into serious problems with a tight budget. Nearly a fourth of the way through the session, the Legislature has yet to agree on revenue estimates for the coming year and until they do, neither the governor nor anyone else can accurately predict just how much money will be available to fund those good intentions. Maybe some. Maybe none. How Judy will deal with this may have been revealed, however, in the closing lines of her address.

Like the true speedskater she will always be, Martz picked up her pace as she sprinted for the finish line. Breaking from the prepared speech, Governor Judy told a joke about a politician who tried to use the influence of his office to get an extra piece of chicken at a buffet. “Apparently,” said the mayor to the woman serving the chicken who had just refused to give him an extra piece, “you don’t know who I am. I am the mayor and I am in charge of this city.”

“That’s nice,” replied the woman, “but apparently you don’t know who I am. I’m the lady in charge of the chicken—and you only get one piece.”

While political pundits may speculate in coming years about why Martz decided to end her State of the State address by ad libbing that particular joke, it seems clear to me. Every day, as Governor Judy learns more about the dire budget straits, she must try to balance the shortage of funds with the wants and needs of a growing sea of grasping hands. To those who want more, Gov. Martz is seen as a key politician to be wooed for favors using all the tactics of power and influence. But in her own mind—and when push comes to shove on budget issues—I’m betting she’s beginning to see herself more and more as “the lady in charge of the chicken.”

George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.

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