Capital Eyes: The Rising Tide of Discontent 

Lawmakers get bad marks from citizens and officials alike

It is inevitable that in the formulation and enactment of public policy, enemies get made. By the rules, proposals before the Legislature are structured for proponents and opponents—for or against any particular measure—from the hearings on up the ladder of decision-making. In spite of the good-faith efforts of many in the legislative arena to keep these decisions on a policy level, it is an inescapable fact that when you win and someone else loses, there will be hard feelings. Likewise, there is an unspoken rule of legislative politics: If you make more enemies than friends, eventually it will catch up with you and you will lose. Right now, the actions of the 2001 Legislature, and in particular those of the Republican majorities in the Senate and House, are making more enemies than friends.

Last weekend 3,000 teachers, students and parents from all across the state flooded the Capitol rallying for adequate education funding. This particularly large wave in the rising tide of citizen discontent hoped to bring their concerns to legislators and the governor, but in what will surely prove to be a strategic political blunder, the governor missed the rally for a prayer breakfast at the women’s prison in Billings. Adding insult to injury for these folks, the House was debating the merits of a Republican proposal to increase education funding by busting the Permanent Coal Tax Trust Fund at the same time the educators were holding their rally. When the president of the senate and the governor’s budget director told the crowd that busting the Trust was the only way to fund education, they were booed—that’s right, booed. These thousands of education supporters recognized both the transparent political ploy of offering up the Trust as the answer to education funding and the temporary nature such a solution would provide. Stinging from bad mid-term reviews, the governor and Legislature could have made some much-needed friends, but instead these thousands of citizens left Helena angry and frustrated.

The Republicans are losing friends on the environmental front, too, where thousands more are up in arms over their current, unsupported theory that environmental laws are inhibiting economic development. Hacking away at bedrock environmental laws that have served Montanans well for 30 years has inflamed people, including the original sponsors of those laws, from both parties. Adding fuel to the flames, editorials at home and across the nation have condemned the Legislature’s actions, which diminish Montana’s image as a clean and natural state. As with education funding, the Republican strategy on the environment seems flawed as they stir up a hornet’s nest of angry citizens who, besides raising loud objections now, will undoubtedly work against them in the future. If some form of economic payback was certain, such a tactic might make some small sense—but to date, and now into the 13th consecutive year of Republican governors, reductions in environmental protections have simply not produced the promised healthy economy.

Meanwhile, facing another dry summer and soaring electricity costs, farmers and stockgrowers are wondering whether they will be able to even afford to turn on their center pivots this year. In the absence of a workable plan by the Legislature or the governor’s Energy Advisory Council so far, these agricultural interests are now joining forces with major industrial groups to support a new bill that would clarify the Public Service Commission’s authority to set what they call “lifeline rates” based on “just and reasonable” prices for electricity. Whether the bill will survive is uncertain, but their efforts at what many see as re-regulation is a good example of the strange coalitions the state’s energy situation is now producing and a prime indicator of what’s to come. And again, the action is being taken out of frustration with the Legislature’s inability to produce a workable solution to the crisis.

Across the social and economic spectrum of Montana, the mass of citizens who are unhappy with the Legislature’s actions is growing—from those who rely on state services, to those who provide them. In an effort to reduce budgets, the House Appropriations committee recently enacted an across-the-board 25 percent reduction in travel. No one knows exactly how such a reduction will affect the various agencies or the jobs they perform, but the committee passed it anyway. Will it cripple state government? Probably not. But again, the actions of the Legislature are likely going to leave the new administration with a disgruntled state workforce—and again, friends of the Republicans diminish while the ranks of the disenchanted swell.

It is possible, but highly unlikely, that the Legislature and the new governor can turn this trend around in the remaining weeks of the 2001 session—but it would certainly be in their best political interests to try. They could dump the attack on the environment, discard the “bust the Trust” effort and reprioritize state spending to put the additional money into education. Pulling together, it may, just may, be possible for Montanans to get out of the tight spot in which poorly designed tax policy and electricity deregulation have left us. But they have to get moving; time is running out and the Legislature will go home in a month and a half. As political ideology falls victim to the grim realities these failed policies have produced—and their enemies begin to outnumber their friends—the Republicans, like the Democrats before them, may find their majorities swept out of office by a rising tide of citizen discontent.

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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