Capital Eyes: What’s the Plan? 

Fraught with problems, the Lege struggles to find a vision

Back in 1991, which was the last time Democrats held control of both houses of the Montana Legislature, the state faced tremendous budget difficulties not unlike those facing us today. It was, and is, the job of the majority party to explain to Montanans how the Legislature will resolve our fiscal and policy quandaries. Day in and day out for the duration of the ’91 legislative session, Rep. John Mercer, who was then the Minority Leader of the House, looked across the aisle at Democrat Speaker of the House Hal Harper, took his microphone in hand, and asked, “What’s the Plan, Mr. Speaker?” And every day, Harper tried his best to answer. But for those in the Capitol as well as for citizens across the state, “the Plan” remained an amorphous ambiguity, lacking the details necessary to answer the question. In the end, the Democrats raised all taxes by 7 percent—a plan, of sorts, they called “the Seven Percent Solution.” As a result, when taxes went up Democrats got tossed out of office, and “the Plan” proved to be a solution to only one thing—future Democrat majorities.

Now, as the saying goes, the worm has turned and it is the Republican majorities who have the unenviable task of coming up with “the Plan” to get Montana out of the rising tide of hot water which seems to be inundating our once-stable state. Every day it becomes more apparent that Montana is facing a series of interconnected crises that demand a cohesive Plan to resolve it. But “the Plan,” if there is one, has yet to emerge. Instead, the ideological battles of the past seem to be distracting us from finding the necessary solutions for our future. And, even though they are receiving nothing worse than what they have dished out for years, the Republican majorities seem to be very thin-skinned when it comes to those with a different view on what is necessary and good for the future of the state.

For instance, in response to President Clinton designating the Missouri Breaks as a national monument last week, the Legislature passed a resolution condemning the move. At the hearing, many opponents to the resolution voiced dismay over their perception that the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion—even before their testimony had been heard. When Gov. Judy Martz later held a press conference to cast her own disdain on the designation, she was surprised to find a lone opponent in Bob Decker, the Executive Director of the Montana Wilderness Association, who challenged the veracity of her statements. In the widely reported exchange, Decker put the governor on the spot by asking her to name specific items suggested by the Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Advisory Council—consisting of Montana citizens—which were ignored by the Clinton administration. When the governor couldn’t answer the questions, the press conference was abruptly terminated. For his efforts to clarify the truth of the issue, Decker was later castigated in the Republican House caucus.

Meanwhile, the continuing disaster resulting from electricity deregulation provides another great example of “hold the course” politics clashing with on-the-ground realities for Montana’s families and businesses. The Republicans’ first major piece of legislation on the issue was heard this week and, in the words of the bill’s sponsor Sen. Royal Johnson (R-Billings), it was “not a perfect bill.” That’s putting it mildly. The risky and complex measure, which was designed by many of the same “experts” that brought us deregulation in the first place, would require Montanans to tap into state funds to buy long-term electricity supply contracts in the unpredictable energy market. Industry lobbyist Tom Daubert, who represents Ash Grove Cement, says the measure “may be a helpful solution for residential consumers. But for the large industrial consumers who did go out into the market, it’s like being thrown off the Titanic into the icy North Sea (where life expectancy is 20 minutes) and told, ‘If you can just survive for three days, a boat will come along.’” Daubert says Montana is “close to losing 9,000 of the highest-paying jobs in the state with a huge resulting tax loss to state and local government. Those businesses simply cannot survive until new generation facilities come online.” Think about that. If the state’s largest businesses with their huge cash flows are worried about survival, what’s the outlook for Montana’s families, who are scraping by on the lowest wages in the nation?

By the time you read this, Gov. Judy Martz will have given her first “State of the State” address to the Legislature—and make no mistake, the state of the state is not good. In the Capitol, Republican post-election euphoria has been replaced by a sober silence that seems to fill the halls as legislators struggle to balance static or declining revenues with the budgetary demands of a too-big-for-our-population government. The economic benefits that were predicted by the last 12 years of Republican governors remain unrealized and all talk of a budget surplus has vanished, replaced by the howl of the wolf baying at the door. How bad is it? Let’s put it this way, former dreams of the university system for millions in new capital building projects have given way to wondering if they will be able to simply heat and light the existing buildings—and in this respect, they mirror the fears of most Montanans. Tired rhetoric and worn-out slogans won’t save us or our would-be leaders from the harsh realities of our uncertain future. We need and deserve to know the specifics of how we’re going to turn the state around: what it’s going to cost, who is going to pay, and who is going to benefit. To quote John Mercer’s most famous line—and anyone can feel free to answer—“What’s the Plan?”

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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