Throw the Crumbs Out 

Now it’s the citizens’ turn to make sense of the 2001 session

A friend of mine thinks Montanans should send slices of toast to the Legislature with this message: “If you don’t fix deregulation, we’re toast and so are you.” As political symbolism goes, it’s wonderful—easy to do, cheap to pull off, and it provides a great visual for the message. And, unlike a lot of the current political symbolism, “toast” is a completely accurate assessment of the state’s citizens, its economic condition, and perhaps more than anything else, the 2001 Legislature. With the session closing, it’s the citizens’ turn to weigh the actions and outcomes of this bunch, and my hunch is that “toast” will indeed be their call.

As they sit in judgment, one thing citizens shouldn’t blame new legislators for is their inexperience. It was, after all, we the people who voted in the term limits that resulted in the mass of new representatives and a new, unsettled administration in the Governor’s Office. No matter how quick or bright a new office-holder may be, setting the course and determining the operating budget for running the government is no simple task. No one, and I mean no one, can do much more than scratch the surface of this complexity in a four-month session. For their inexperience, Montanans should cut the new people some slack—but we should also realize that this is just a peek into our future, where a continuous flow of wannabe leaders shuffle in and are tossed out before they even have time to figure out how, or where, to lead.

The other factor driving the outcome of this session is less easy to explain—and much more difficult to forgive. It comes from a collision of grim reality with the Republicans’ free-market and supply-side political ideology. Unfortunately for all Montanans, long after the 2001 Legislature goes home we will still be paying for what was sacrificed on the altar of their political ideology. After 13 years of Republican governors and a decade of Republican-dominated legislatures, their policies should be paying off in better jobs, a more vibrant economy, higher wages, and a lower cost-of-living, as brisk competition drives the price of commodities ever downward. However, as everyone knows, that simply isn’t the case. Montanans work the most jobs for the lowest wages in the nation, our economy sucks, and out-of-control electricity prices have cost thousands their high-paying industrial jobs. Having put in place the tax policies that give hundreds of millions a year in tax breaks to large corporations, you’d think we’d be getting the royal treatment. But instead, Montana finds itself easy prey for corporate pirates who plunder us and our resources and laugh all the way to the bank.

It is easy to understand how the failure of these policies might cause consternation and confusion in Republican leaders. Less easy to understand is why they refuse to acknowledge the dismal results and change. But that they refuse to do. The 2001 Legislature, if it is remembered at all, will be seen by historians as yet another attempt to move Montana into the future by employing the logic and policies of the past. In the face of global warming and continuing drought, legislators chose to encourage new coal-fired electrical generation plants—one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Given a serious fiscal imbalance between revenues and expenditures, legislators chose to further erode the future tax base with more industrial giveaways. As growth and development pressures put more strain on fish, wildlife, clean air and water, legislators moved to cripple environmental protection laws. And just in case Montana’s citizens decide to get uppity and do something about it in the future, this legislature made sure it would be much tougher for them to use the initiative process. Given all the options for Montana’s future, they consistently picked the wrong ones.

In the final days of the 2001 Legislature, these same themes will be replayed as Republican leaders struggle to find a solution to the energy problems caused by the 1997 Legislature’s disastrous decision to deregulate the electricity supply. And, much like the 1997 Legislature, which rushed dereg through in its last weeks, the 2001 Legislature will unveil its energy policy only in the last days of this session. Although these policies are critical to our future and will affect all our lives, just 11 people sitting on free conference committees will rewrite entire bills in “executive session.” Issues that should have been hammered out long ago and exposed to the bright light of citizen scrutiny will instead become law without a single hearing

And so the ill-fated 2001 Legislature will come to an end much as it started. Legislators confused by the enormous complexities of the issues will simply vote the party line. As a result, and thanks to continued Republican party dominance, Montana’s future will reflect the same political ideologies that got us into this mess. And once again, there’s a good chance these ideologies will fail to deliver. If the cost of energy for Montana’s citizens follows the same disastrous course as it did for industrial users, as my friend says, “We are toast, and so are they.”

If there is a silver lining to this blackest of clouds, it’s that Montanans are likely to toss out the incumbents wholesale in the next election and bring the failed experiment of one-party dominance to an end. Maybe, just maybe, we can get some legislators who pledge to make decisions based on open, timely, and informed debate that puts Montana’s citizens and families first—not on backroom deals, their political parties, or the profit-driven desires of rapacious megacorporations. But in the meantime, don’t hesitate to send ‘em a slice of toast.

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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