All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here: 

Into the Inferno

Faced with a record number of bills, the '99 Legislature is ready for hell.
But will some members be frozen out?


It's as though Montana Republicans have adopted Jesse "The Body" Ventura's motto: "It's payback time!"

Or so it seems to many of the state's Democratic legislators. For four decades, the Dems ruled the state capital with an iron fist, frustrating conservatives to no end. But when the voters turned to the GOP in the '90s, it was the Democrats who found themselves frozen out.

True, Democrats made some inroads in this fall's elections, taking back four seats in the Senate, six in the House and sending quite a few new faces (including six freshmen lawmakers from Missoula) into the fray. But still, many, like the new Senate minority leader, fear public policy will suffer from one-sided debates.

The Montana House of Representatives

"If we're going to link up arms together and march forward, whose ideas are we going to rally around?" asks Steve Doherty, the Great Falls Democrat who recently stepped into Missoula lawmaker Mike Halligan's old position, leading their party in the Senate. "Is it going to be a select group of ideas, or will we put everyone's ideas on the table so we can choose and prioritize? That seems better to me than ramming through a special agenda looking for a public relations coup."

With the record number of bills to be considered this time around, it's not surprising that Doherty's Republican counterpart, Bruce Crippen, takes umbrage at the notion that he wields his authority unfairly. It will be Crippen's job to make sure the Senate runs like clockwork, as it debates property tax reform, deals with Constitutional Initiative 75, haggles over money for education and corrections, doles out millions from a tobacco settlement and deals with the mess that a private company has made of the state's mental health services.

"Certainly because Republicans are in the majority, you're going to see their philosophy prevail most of the time," the Billings GOP leader says. "But that doesn't mean the Democrats have been frozen out of the process. It's their responsibility to make constructive criticism, make suggestions. This is the way its been done in the past [and] the way it will be done in the future."

Crippen further points out that he meets regularly with Democratic leaders nearly every day as the session wears on. And, he says, he appointed Mike Halligan to head up a committee to make recommendations on how to deal with CI-75. "I could easily have appointed a good Republican," he says. "But this is not a partisan issue, and I wanted the best person for the job."

That particular job could be one of the most difficult of the session. Politicians on both sides are scrambling to understand the new initiative, which requires a public vote on any new taxes.

"It's a really large gorilla in the corner that we have to deal with, but no one knows how long its arms are, and no one knows what it eats," Doherty says. "What's a tax? School funding? Land annexation? There's not any ideology here, it's about how can we make the system work, and nobody has a clue."

Doherty's analogy harkens back to the 1997 session, when utility deregulation was frequently referred to as the giant ape threatening to wreak havoc in Helena. That issue, Doherty says, will return to haunt lawmakers. He predicts "huge amounts of fallout. We won't know what the income from [Montana Power Company's] sale of its assets is going to be," he says. "We don't know the tax consequences for property taxpayers."

And property tax reform, a behemoth in its own right, is also likely to take up a lot of legislators' energy. Republicans are gung-ho to reduce personal property taxes, Crippen says. Many, adds Doherty, are salivating at the chance to dump the business equipment tax as well. Complicating matters is $825 million due the state from a tobacco lawsuit settlement, which some lawmakers see as a miracle cure for property taxes. While Crippen says no one wants to use all the money for tax relief, he's not opposed to putting some cash in that direction. Doherty sees this idea as irresponsible. "We can spend it like a wild-eyed bunch of drunken sailors or reasonably, responsibly address the human suffering which is the reason for the tobacco settlement money to begin with."

Another throw-down is heating up between education and corrections. The governor's budget proposes to increase spending on the university system by nearly $20 million, while the prison system wants an extra $30 million. But as Doherty points out, $12 million of the money earmarked for colleges is for research and development; by the end of the biennium, students will be paying as much for their schooling as the state shells out for higher education from the general fund.

"The showdown's not supposed to happen, but corrections is talking about an extra $30 million," Doherty says. "Now obviously we're very concerned with public safety. But every dollar we spend on corrections we can't spend on tax relief or education. Somehow, we always get down to the end, and the end means a showdown between corrections and education."

Find your seats, folks. The show has begun.

The Law of the Land

Greens steel themselves for battle over the environment


As lawmakers converge on Helena, environmentalists are hoping they won't take the shellacking they took in the 1995 and 1997 sessions. But with well over 100 new environmental laws already proposed, there is little doubt that conservation issues will, once again, get a fair amount of scrutiny.

Into the sometimes knock-down drag-out fray that is Montana's political big show, Missoula has sent a plethora of freshman legislators. Two of them, Democrats-Ron Erickson and Gail Gutsche-may well prove that the anti-green tide that took hold of the legislature back in 1995 is beginning to slow. And both representatives are in a position to help stem that tide as well, since Erickson and Gutsche are serving on both the House Natural Resources and Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committees.

In 1995, and again in 1997, environmentalists came away from the Legislature with their collective butts kicked. Many of the state's leading environmentalists often refer to 1995 in particular, with the gutting of water quality standards, in near nuclear-winterish terms. In 1997, the Legislature passed the environmental self-audit law, which effectively handed the responsibility of environmental enforcement over to industry. The law granted companies immunity from any penalties if they discovered violations of environmental regulations and turned themselves in to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The Legislature will consider more than 100 bills concerning Montana's land, air and water.

Erickson and Gutsche were elected last November with conservation résumés that would do any environmentalist proud. Erickson, a retired University of Montana professor, helped create the Environmental Studies program on campus and served as its first director for a number of years. He has also been deeply involved in growth management issues and served as chair of Missoula's Open Space Advisory Committee. Gutsche was a founding member and project coordinator of Woman's Voices for the Earth. She also works as a development coordinator for the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project.

So far, this session isn't shaping up to be the environmental blood bath of years past. However, there are several proposed bills that are sure to kick up heated debate, and both Erickson and Gutsche promise to be in the thick of it.

Perhaps the most contentious of all so far is the proposal by Senator Chuck Swysgood (R-Dillon), to repeal Initiative 137, which bans any new or expanded open-pit mines that use cyanide for two years, until voters can decide the issue a second time. Swysgood's argument is that mining interests were unfairly gagged from getting out their side of the issue until the very end of the campaign, when a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a law that prohibited corporations from speaking out about or contributing to ballot measures.

Neither Erickson or Gutsche see it that way. "I don't think its ever a good idea to throw out what the people just voted for," says Erickson.

It's a sentiment that Gutsche agrees with. "I'm not going to vote for that bill," she says flatly. Gutsche points to the fact that voters in her district voted for the measure by a two-to-one margin and to a recent statewide poll showing there is still strong support for the ban.

Land use planning and growth management also figure to play prominent roles this session. On the state level there is currently little in the way of such regulation, but a number of proposed bills could change this. And these are issues that are right up Erickson's alley.

"I'm really concerned about growth management and planning. The only bill I've put in so far is a relatively simple bill that would allow for impact fees (on new developments) for schools," says Erickson.

If the bill is passed it would mean that the cost of building new schools for future development would be borne by those who move into the development. "One thing that is really important with the growth management thing is that local governments have control," says Gutsche. While she believes Missoula is off to a good start with its growth management plan, Gutsche says it would be wrong to require all communities to manage their growth in the same way.

Besides land use planning, both reps point to the possibility of positive legislation concerning a variety of environmental issues, especially in the area of conservation easements, bison management and increased recreational access. However, with the GOP still holding overwhelming majorities in both houses-despite substantial gains made by the Dems-neither is willing to make any bets that the Legislature will turn back the clock to the pre-1995 days. Erickson put it most plainly: "If you're asking me if I see a lot new positive environmental legislation coming out of the this Legislature, the answer would be no."

Jail Sells

The Big House business, bigger than ever


When the Montana Department of Correc-tions first drew up its wish list for the next two years, the price tag for the dreamed-of cell blocks, guards and twists of concertina razor wire ran to $57.7 million dollars. As soon as that number slipped into the media, brickbats flew at the state department that has sometimes seemed on its way to swallowing every other.

"All our departments put out their wish lists," says Mike Cronin, the department's official spokesman. "As soon as we added ours all together, that became public information, and the media was reporting that figure as our request to the legislature."

Given the recent history of prisons in Montana-a chronicle that has included mismanagement and violence, and has frequently seen the budgetary needs of prisons pitted against education-a stern edit came as a small surprise. Now, with an 11-point plan for a bigger and better system on the table, Corrections has toned down its request to a $25.6 million, or an 18 percent, increase.

More money for more wire?

According to the department's plan, that cash-if the Legislature comes through-should be enough to expand the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge, the women's prison in Billings, the Pine Hills youth detention facility and numerous other arms of the state's crime and punishment system. While the current request's price tag is half of the huge increase initially contemplated, the rise of Montana's prison costs continues even in an era of declining crime rates.

Last time around, in 1997, the Legislature plumped Corrections with a $39 million increase to the department's general fund plus a $31 million building program. To hear prison officials tell it, that 34 percent surge represented the beginning of the end of decades of stop-gap prison management and inadequate, even illegal, accommodations for the state's most special guests.

To critics of the department-prominently, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union-those increases represented a misdirection of funds better spent on education, rehabilitation and alternative sentencing. The events of the intervening two years have done little to quell such criticism.

Inmates exported to a privately run prison in Dickens, Texas were moved after a series of escapes and near-riots. Hundreds of Montanans are now housed in for-profit facilities in Arizona and Tennessee which have been dogged by prisoner complaints and lawsuits. Those problems, in turn, have sown doubts about the state's long-term relationship with the Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville-based company that's the heaviest hitter on the private prison scene.

CCA, the so-called "Procter and Gamble of prisons," is building a new 500-bed prison near Shelby. That facility, along with a number of new regional jails, will ease chronic over-crowding at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, and the official line is that CCA can run it more efficiently than the state. Some critics in the small Hi-Line town claim the facility was rammed through rather precipitously by the local powers that be; nonetheless, work is underway and the prison's set to open in October.

Besides the new prisons (Missoula's regional facility, a 144-inmate operation, is expected to open in October, too), the department wants a 160-bed high-security building at Deer Lodge, an expansion that would leave the women's prison with a 205-inmate capacity and improvements to make Pine Hills more efficient and secure.

The department is responsible for about 8,000 offenders, three-quarters of whom are on probation or parole rather than behind bars. If Corrections has its way, Missoula's pre-release center will be expanded to serve 100 people and a new, 40-bed halfway house will be built somewhere else. The department wants 40 new probation officers and an expanded system for providing intense supervision to released sex offenders.

"The studies indicate that sex offenders, as a class, respond very well to treatment and do very well at staying clean as long as they're under supervision," Cronin says. "If you can keep an eye on them, the treatment they receive in prison sticks."

Some critics of Montana's corrections policy note that the number of people locked up or otherwise supervised by the state's corrections system continues to increase despite a crime rate that shows little or no growth. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau stats, Montana's crime rate is the fifth-lowest in the nation, a rank unchanged from the beginning of the decade. The prison population, on the other hand, ranks 38th per capita in the nation.

While some blame the discrepancy-and the attendant financial burdens-on a conservative Legislature that seems bent on sending more people up the river and keeping them there longer, Cronin says the increase in his department's responsibilities has more to do with the approximately 80,000 newcomers who've moved here in the last ten years.

"We've experienced a rate of growth that seems likely to continue," he says of his department. "Part of that has to do with the national perception of Montana. With media portraying us as a haven for Unabomber and Freemen types, we may be inadvertently attracting a criminal element that otherwise would never appear here."

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