Conventional wisdom says the political pendulum in Montana vacillates between Republican and Democrat control of the state. Some would blame fickle voters for the swings, but in reality Montanans tend to give politicians a chance and then, if their ideas don’t pan out, try something else. And guess what? It is the Democrats who are now winning this battle of ideas as the Republicans slip into the twilight, trying in vain to defend the sorry outcomes of their time in power.
Back in 1989, after years of double-digit inflation and endless budget debacles, Montanans decided it was time for a change and put a Republican in the governor’s office. Democrats, who still controlled both houses of the legislature, tried in vain to stop the pendulum’s swing, but when they balanced the 1991 budget through the infamous “7 percent solution” that raised all taxes by 7 percent, they were dragged screaming into the pit. By 1995, Democrats retained scarcely one third of the legislature and had no hope of taking back the governor’s office from smooth-talking Marc Racicot.
For their part, Republicans came into control full of what they called “new ideas” on how to run the state. While the legislature methodically dismantled environmental regulations and corporate taxes to create what they called “a better business climate,” Gov. Racicot “reinvented government” through the largest and most expensive executive branch reorganization in decades.
Now, 15 years after the Republicans moved into the governor’s office and a decade after taking legislative control, the hype and buzz of their “new ideas” is gone. After so long in power—and with such pitiful results—it is now the hapless Republican “leaders” who find themselves defending their actions, while the Democrats are free to point out the failures and propose their own ideas for a better Montana.
Electricity deregulation offers perhaps the best example of this political juxtaposition. The Repubs, putting their faith in the so-called “free market,” initiated electricity deregulation, claiming it would bring more competition to the utility market, resulting in cheaper electricity rates for Montana families and businesses.
But that was seven years ago and, to put it mildly, electricity deregulation will probably go down in Montana history as one of the greatest blunders of all time. Not only don’t we have cheaper rates, we have ceded control of our power generation and distribution systems to out-of-state corporations, witnessed the disintegration of the century-old Montana Power Company, and are now caught in the bankruptcy throes of NorthWestern Energy.
While Republicans like Judy Martz and Sen. Fred Thomas desperately try to defend deregulation, it is the Democrats who are now offering new ideas on how to get Montana out of the dereg hole. Two years ago, it was the Democrats who backed the citizen initiative to buy back the dams. Republican “leaders” immediately denounced the idea as socialism, and using their old tools of deception and money, scared voters into believing that any attempt at public ownership of Montana’s power generation facilities would lead to even higher utility costs.
After spending nearly $3 million to defeat the initiative, however, the utilities went back to business as usual, and Montanans watched their power bills skyrocket. Martz and Thomas would like us to believe that we are doing just fine, but Democrat leaders like Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. David Wanzenreid continue to push for some form of public ownership of our utility network. And guess what? Only weeks after these Demos came out with their “ReFuel Montana” plan, Montana’s electricity co-ops floated a proposal to buy out bankrupt NorthWestern Energy and regain home-state control over the transmission lines.
Similarly, it was the Democrats who put forth the idea to call a legislative special session to appropriate money so the Public Service Commission could try to protect the interests of Montana consumers in the NorthWestern bankruptcy proceedings. Again, Martz and Thomas led the Republican resistance to the idea, only to turn around weeks later and do just what the Demos suggested—but in a way that made sure the D’s didn’t get credit for the idea.
The same thing happened with the millions of federal dollars Congress appropriated to the floundering states. Democrats called for a special legislative session to debate the merits of competing state needs and divvy up the federal funds accordingly. Martz and Thomas once again pooh-poohed the idea, only to turn right around and implement the Democrats’ ideas. But once again, they did it by executive fiat rather than through an open and public legislative process, to make sure the Democrats didn’t garner any credit for their ideas.
Most recently, Democrat State Auditor John Morrison suggested using a $1 million insurance settlement to match $4 million in federal dollars and bring another 3,000 uninsured Montana children into the state’s CHIPS program. Martz has again rejected this good Democrat idea, saying the money must go into the general fund. But don’t be surprised if Morrison’s idea, which makes perfect sense, somehow gets implemented by Republican “leaders” without Morrison getting a scintilla of credit.
Montanans are watching, however, and they have seen “all hat and no herd” cowboys before. Every day it becomes more obvious that the ruling Repubs had their chance to implement their “great ideas” to make Montana better, and that they have failed miserably. Our government is now more expensive and less effective, our utilities rates continue to climb, our wages remain in last place nationally, tuition has skyrocketed, schools are struggling, and our environment is more polluted.
The Repubs can shuck and jive all they want, but it is clear that the Democrats are now the party with the new ideas to turn the state around. With each new idea, the pendulum swings further in the Demo’s direction. Slowly but surely, the failed Republican “leaders” are now being pulled off their podiums—and inexorably dragged into the pit they themselves have dug.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.