Capital Eyes: April’s Fools 

Could there be real change in the Lege? Or is it just a joke?

With the 2001 Legislature drawing to a close, soon our citizen legislators will scatter like flushed quail, fleeing in all directions from Helena and returning to the homes, families, and occupations that fill their everyday lives. It would be great to say the session was reaching a graceful and dignified end. It would be wonderful to report that our leaders, reversing a decade-long trend, had decided to cut spending on prisons and increase funding for education. Montanans would be well-served if, when the taillights leave town, we could be assured that the “clean and healthful” guarantees of our constitution had been realized through enlightened policy that maintains and restores our unique environmental resources for future generations. And it would be a boon to all citizens if, faced with the uncertainties of the energy market, our representatives and senators had moved aggressively to control Montana’s vast energy resources for the benefit of her citizens.

But that is all a dream. Unfortunately, it’s “April Fool!” and the joke is on us. As the end of the session nears, Montana finds itself foundering as waves of unresolved issues, partisan bitterness, back-room deal cutting and political intrigue wash over the Capitol.

Affordable electricity, one of the state’s primary problems since deregulation kicked in, provides a good example. Early in the session, Sen. Royal Johnson (R-Billings) brought in Senate Bill 243—a bill that would have used state funding to enable electricity providers to enter into long-term contracts to secure affordable power in the skyrocketing market. While much heralded as the Legislature’s answer to the problems created by deregulation, even Sen. Johnson admitted that the bill needed a lot of work when he introduced it. Unfortunately. the same forces that brought our fair state its deregulation crisis turned out to be the ones doing “the work.” By the time the energy industry lobbyists got done, Sen. Johnson didn’t recognize his own bill and, much to his credit, asked the Legislature to kill it, saying the industry had gutted consumer protections while insulating themselves from all risk. Faced with the naked truth, the House reversed it’s earlier approval and killed the bill.

With the ugly demise of Johnson’s bill, the Legislature must now find another solution. So what will they do? Well, according to Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville), the sponsor of the original deregulation legislation, it is likely that a clutter of energy-related bills will wind up in a “Super Committee” in the last weeks of the session. Does all this sound familiar? It should. It was in exactly this manner that Montana leaped into electricity deregulation in the first place. In the closing weeks of the 1997 Legislature, Republican majorities in both the House and Senate voted to suspend legislative rules to allow the late introduction of Senate Bill 390, the electricity deregulation legislation. Although the bill was sponsored by Sen. Thomas, it was so complex that when questions about technical matters came up, they were usually explained not by legislators but by Montana Power Company’s lobbyists and lawyers. In a few sparse weeks, the bill had cleared what little legislative scrutiny could be mustered and was signed into law by then-Governor Racicot. In spite of the old adage that the once-burnt child fears the fire, it appears the Legislature is about to repeat the process that burned us so badly the first time around.

If there is a bright side to all this, it’s thanks to the physics of government, in which every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Citizens, consumer advocates and environmental groups seem unimpressed by the pending legislative proposals, while calls for more conservation, funding for alternative energy and a citizen’s initiative to buy back the dams are rising across the state. How serious is this citizen’s movement? Ask PP&L Global, the company that bought Montana Power’s energy production facilities and which is now being blamed for high electric rates. If they’re not worried about the power of these good ideas, why are they running expensive, full-page ads in mainstream papers across the state trying to discredit the concepts before they become even more popular?

But energy is only the tip of the iceberg. As unemployed industrial workers join those dissatisfied with the level of education funding, reduced environmental protection, and changes to the citizen initiative process, the mass of disgruntled citizens expands, and their cries grow louder. Day by day, it will become ever more difficult to ignore their displeasure—or get their vote—and the political pendulum may well start a long swing back toward the middle after spending a decade stuck on the far right.

It is, however, unlikely that even mass citizen disapproval will alter the course of the Legislature in its final weeks, but who knows? Some moderate Republicans are beginning to break from their caucus on education funding already. Joined by Democrats, a new majority could evolve that puts education first, and that new majority could sway the end game of the budget debate. They could. But will they? Truth be told, the combination of termed-out veterans with nothing left to lose and a huge class of freshman legislators who may bolt the party line makes it just about impossible to predict what will actually happen. Maybe, just maybe, the political pendulum is already starting to swing. More likely though, when push comes to shove in the closing days of the session, the recalcitrants will be whacked back into line, and the dreams of progressive policies will turn out to be April Fool’s jokes.

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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