Capital Eyes: Something In the Air 

Is it the fumes, or does the Capitol seem more gassy than usual?

Veteran legislators from both parties, lobbyists of all persuasions, and long-time capital reporters have all commented on the pace and vitality of our current legislative session—or rather the lack thereof. The great floor debates seem far less frequent, they say, and everyone seems somewhat enervated. Then there’s the abundance of weird and bad bills being pushed that seem to take Montana backward instead of forward. Some of this can probably be attributed to the current flock of highly inexperienced legislators brought on by term limits. Lacking the institutional memory to know what has been tried, when or if it succeeded or failed, and why, makes it tough for the newcomers to think up big-picture solutions or hold much in the way of elevated policy debates.

But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the fumes.

The much-flaunted Capitol restoration certainly gave the old building a face-lift. But as anyone who has ever toured a new home knows, there are significant “out-gassings” from the variety of materials commonly used in construction these days. From particle-board adhesive to rug glues, we are subjected to a variety of gasses—odorless and otherwise—that fill our atmosphere as they cure. And guess what? The Capitol is packed these days with new rugs, new furniture, new walls, new offices, and new paint and the concurrent out-gassing is virtually everywhere.

And then there’s the monthly dose of pesticides. Yes, sad to say, state employees and legislators have been regularly exposed to pesticides, applied indoors, to make sure no spiders, silverfish or box elder bugs are crawling around in the cracks, crevices, and ventilating shafts of the Capitol. Generally, “the pesticide dose” happens at night on the first Wednesday of every month in the Capitol complex. In our increasingly chemically polluted environment, more people every day are evincing a new breed of disease referred to as “chemical sensitivity.” The symptoms include headache, respiratory and digestive difficulties, mental confusion, slowed reaction times, inability to concentrate or remember, and more. Sometimes, those with these sensitivities refer to themselves as “squirrel-heads” because exposure leaves them so muddled. With all due respect, these symptoms sound a lot like what’s going on in the Capitol—and it doesn’t seem to be particularly selective as to political party.

Some years back, when the regular pesticide dosing of state buildings first came to light, Rep. Hal Harper carried a bill to require the state to post public notice of which buildings had been sprayed with what pesticides at what times. The idea was simply to let state employees and those people in the general public who are sensitive to pesticides know that going in the building may well mean being exposed to these residues. But for some unknown reason, since the remodeling, there are notices are no longer posted on the doors to the Capitol—the legislators, lobbyists, citizens, and employees who work here, in the very place where the laws are made, are not afforded the protections required by law about pesticide use in the building.

Now think about that. These people—normal old Montanans from all over this huge and diverse state—leave their homes and families, their farms, ranches, schools, businesses and loved ones to come spend four hectic months in Helena. By and large, if you put a bunch of Montanans together, you can have a pretty dang good time and solve most of the problems that might arise. Good old Montana common sense seems to prevail. Now ask yourself, “Does it sound like good old Montana common sense is prevailing in the Capitol these days?” I’d have to say, “No, it doesn’t.”

We’ve got bills to make people ride bicycles facing traffic; that way when they come to their first intersection, they’re run over. Then we’ve got the bill to make “plumbers’ crack” a crime; it’s off to the hoosegow for the crime of public nudity (and dump a few million dollars in the corrections department’s budget to take care of these criminals). And of course, you got your flag-burning bill back again; this time it’s been clarified—burning flags is only a crime if you’re protesting. It’s OK to burn them to produce energy, just don’t be burning one because you think George Bush stole the presidency, or you don’t want to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilled for oil, or you don’t agree with waging war on some Third World nation.

The list of lunacy goes on, but my favorite example of what must certainly be fume-induced logistical disconnect is deregulation. We are hard hit by continuing drought and the resulting diminishing returns on hydroelectric generation—all of which seems to indicate those radicals who worried about global warming may have been right. Yet, our response to this problem—which is generally credited to global deforestation and our massive use of fossil fuels—is what? Yes! It is to cut more forests and increase combustion generating facilities. To boot, Montana sends more of the power it generates out of state than it consumes. But the answer to rising power costs, according to our legislative leaders, is more coal- and gas-fired generation. Now, is that mental confusion or what? Would you call this the inability to remember or concentrate?

Given the variety of choices they could have made—and the direction they are deciding to go—what else but construction and pesticide fumes could be responsible for turning a bunch of regular Montanans into such squirrel-heads?

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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