As predicted in last week's column, for every inane action by the 2011 Republican-dominated Legislature, there will be an equal and opposite reaction by the citizenry. Sure enough, the backlash has already begun and, from the looks of things, it's going to be a lot more like Hurricane Katrina than a little tempest in a teacup.
If one were to point to the single egregious act that lit the fuse under citizens statewide, it would be the vote by the House of Representatives to repeal the medical marijuana initiative overwhelmingly approved by 61.8 percent of voters in 2004. To put it in perspective, 276,042 Montanans cast their votes to approve the use of medicinal marijuana. But late last week 63 bull-headed Republican legislators decided they knew better than more than a quarter-million of their fellow Montanans and voted for House Bill 161, sponsored by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, to outright repeal the initiative. Only a single Democrat, Robert Melhoff of Great Falls, voted for repeal while many others, such as Ramsay's Pat Noonan, gave impassioned speeches deploring the arrogance of overturning the will of the citizens. To their credit, six brave Republicans had the guts to vote against this lemming-like move by their own party.
While many agree that this session is absolutely the worst in memory, the vote by the House sets the stage for an historic precedent: If the measure should pass, it will be the first time the Montana Legislature has voted to overturn a citizen-approved initiative in the state's history.
Retribution for this transgression against democracy has been swift and sure. The state's mainstream newspapers have been flooded with letters to the editor and virtually all of them are vehemently against the legislature's action. People are openly disavowing their affiliation with the "new" Republicans, decrying the effects on those for whom the use of medical cannabis has been a blessing, and vowing to hold the rascals that supported repeal accountable in the next election cycle.
The blogs are likewise on fire with the issue and some have even suggested recall campaigns for those who voted for the repeal, pointing out that Montana has one of the lowest levels of signatures needed on a recall petition in the nation. With more than 28,400 registered cannabis cardholders in the state—to say nothing of the friends and family members who support them—any recall move would have a very good head start.
Unfortunately, the Legislature's transgression against citizens does not stop with medical cannabis. This week will see an attempt by Republican Sen. Terry Murphy, of Cardwell, to circumvent the citizen-passed initiative (I-137) to prohibit cyanide heap leach open-pit gold mining with his Senate Bill 306. The measure will allow any other gold or silver open pit mine to process their "ore, concentrate, tailing, waste rock, or other metalliferous product" at the Golden Sunlight Mill in Murphy's district. Of course, the bill doesn't mention that Golden Sunlight is a poster child for why the cyanide ban was passed in the first place—it is already responsible for the perpetual pollution of the area's groundwater that flows downgradient to the confluence of the Boulder and Jefferson Rivers. Perpetual pollution is tough to imagine and it's exactly what Montanans voted against. But Murphy wants to add to it in perpetuity because, like his fellow Republicans, he knows better than Montana's voters.
The citizen uprising this session's actions have spurred is likely to get even worse in coming weeks. By the time you read this, hundreds of previously unseen bills will have been introduced and rammed through the hearing process with little or no notice to the public. Already there are complex measures that have hearings scheduled with less than a day's notice. In sessions past, the Legislature's own rules required a three-day notice to the public except in certain cases. But now the public, and especially the hundreds of thousands of Montanans who do not inhabit the Capitol every day, can expect to find out after-the-fact what got done behind their backs, with virtually no opportunity to read and understand the measures, let alone provide their legislators with input on the proposed laws.
The product of these hurry-up procedures by lawmakers is predictable. Because the citizens are largely omitted from the process, these tired and burned-out legislators act in a feedback vacuum—except for the special interest lobbyists who either brought the measures in the first place or are required to somehow provide meaningful input without time for appropriate analysis. Since the citizens are out of the picture, the ability to draw on the significant insight, experience and wisdom of Montana's populace is simply non-existent. And because hearings are rushed in an attempt to get the bills out of committee in time for floor debate to meet next week's transmittal deadline, even those who camp out in the Capitol have minimal ability to provide information to legislators.
So what happens then? As the old saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out," and we wind up with garbage legislation full of unintended consequences that may well, if history's any guide, plague Montanans for years to come. The real tragedy is that it doesn't have to be this way.
Legislative candidates often deride the actions of Congress because citizens are often omitted in last minute deals. Yet here they are mimicking the very procedures they condemn while the public watches in dismay. But that's what you get when you have inexperienced and arrogant people running the Legislature. And make no mistake, that's exactly what we have in 2011.
There's only one thing to do and, to their credit, Montana's citizens are doing exactly that. Exposing and embarrassing these elected officials in public seems to be the only action that gets their attention. So, fellow Montanans, keep those pens full of ink and the opinion pages full of angry letters to the editor. It's our only hope.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.