Does the end justify the means? 

George Ochenski assesses the winners and losers from a contentious 2007 legislative session

When all was said and done, the 2007 Legislature turned out pretty much the way many predicted it would right from the start. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, enjoying a highly unusual billion-dollar projected surplus and a Democratically-controlled Senate, had the votes and veto power to do what he wished with spending and tax proposals. The Republicans, with just a one-vote majority in the House, boldly declared “it’s a war” on the first day of the session.

For four long months they fought that war with stacked committees, an endless string of party-line votes and dubious procedural maneuvers. But in the end, as sometimes happens when people decide to go to war instead of sitting down at the negotiating table, they lost it all. Simply stated, the Republicans had their heads handed to them on a plate, wandered back to their far corners of Montana wounded and dazed, and are still astonished at how things could have gone so wrong for their party.

The Governor

It’s no great secret that Schweitzer is fixated on making his place in history. And wouldn’t you know it, history was indeed made during the 2007 Legislature—although not necessarily in the way Schweitzer had hoped.

Declaring that his administration had proposed “the most sustainable budget in the history of the state” and “historic levels of tax cuts,” the governor pushed hard on Democrats to approve both the spending and tax components of what he colloquially dubbed his “Square Deal with Montana.”

History was indeed made, just not in the ways Schweitzer expected. For starters, he spent the most time out of state of any governor while the Legislature was in session. In his absence, 90 days of endless wrangling, arm-twisting, name-calling and bill-killing took place under the Capitol dome until the clock finally ran out.

Once again history was made when the 2007 Legislature became the first regular Montana Legislature to adjourn without completing a state budget for the coming biennium. Rightfully ashamed of their performance and abandoned by a public grown weary of their hollow rhetoric and partisan squabbling, the governor played coy with legislators and told them he was in no hurry to call them back to Helena to finish the job.

But with a July 1 government shutdown looming for lack of a budget, Schweitzer sent members of his administration into secret negotiations with a handful of breakaway Republican legislators (see “Lessons learned,” page 17) to hammer out a deal that could end the partisan stalemate. With only two days notice, the governor then called legislators back into special session to jam through billions in spending and tax policy. Although Schweitzer declared the bills could be rammed through in three days, it wound up taking five. Nonetheless, once again history was made as Schweitzer’s proposals, virtually all of which were passed, became the largest spending and tax package ever approved in a short special session.

The Republicans

There are winners and losers in every Legislature, but usually each side gets at least some of what it wants. Not this time. The Republicans lost and lost big, and not just their bills or policy proposals, but in their standing with the Montana public. Like a Greek tragedy, most of those losses occurred not because of some clever strategy from the Governor’s Office or the Democrats on the other side of the aisle, but from fatal flaws within their own strategies, outrageous behavior from their leaders and, finally, mutiny within their ranks.
It’s well known that Schweitzer campaigned hard against Republican candidates during the last election cycle, hoping to deliver solid Democrat majorities in both houses of the Legislature. As it turned out, however, Schweitzer was the only Democratic governor in the nation to experience a loss of a legislative body—the House, to Republicans. The Senate, which would have been tied 25–25, only went to the Democrats after former Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg switched parties, infuriating Republican legislators.

To say the Republicans were angry when they came to Helena would be putting it mildly—outraged might be a more accurate description. It was this burning desire to somehow get even with Schweitzer that fueled their actions and, ultimately, led to their ignominious defeat.

Standing up for what they called the “Republican principles” of smaller government and less taxes, they were ready to undermine the session rather than give in to the administration’s plans. With only one house under their majority control, they stacked important committees with enough Republicans to ensure that even if they lost a vote or two they could kill any bill they wished. Making things even uglier, the Republican leadership of the House refused to appoint some experienced Democrat legislators to key committees. To rub salt into the Demos’ wounds, the Republicans appointed Rick Jore, a home school advocate and the Legislature’s sole member of the Constitution Party, to chair the important education committee.

The straw that broke the camel’s proverbial back, however, came when the House Republicans decided to break the administration’s major budget bill into eight individual bills. For the last 30 years the budget of every Democrat and Republican governor has been contained in a single bill, House Bill 2. But Republicans, making a little dubious history of their own, blew up the single budget bill in an attempt to wield what little leverage they had against the Democrats.

Not to be too biblical about it all, but wailing and lamentation would be a good description of what went on in the aftermath of breaking up the budget bill. In what undoubtedly again made history, virtually every vote on a budget bill in the House was exactly divided along partisan lines, 50 Republicans and Jore against 49 Democrats. Nonetheless, the one-vote margin allowed the House bills to head to the Senate, where the administration and their Democrat allies would get their crack at them.

For their part, the Senate Republicans were much more subdued. Some would say it’s because the Senate is the more genteel of the two chambers and operates in a more collegiate and diplomatic fashion. Truth be told, the Senate Republicans couldn’t do much no matter how hard they tried—they, like the House Democrats, were simply in the minority and didn’t have the votes to make significant changes to any legislation.

As the session progressed and their budget plans unraveled, the frustration levels rose among House Republicans. Finally, in an outburst that made national news, House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, exploded before his own caucus, calling Schweitzer “that S.O.B. on the second floor,” and saying he could “stick his bills up his ass.” Even more astounding than Lange’s statements was the applause they received from the Republican caucus members.

A collective gasp went round the state as the video clips of Lange’s tirade were played over and over, even making it to YouTube where thousands more witnessed what was surely one of the most egregious breakdowns of legislative diplomacy in Montana history. Lange and his Republicans were almost universally condemned in hundreds of letters to the editor in papers statewide.

But condemnation alone could not turn back the hands of time, could not erase Lange’s comments, and could not put the Humpty-Dumpty budget back together again. Dripping infamy, Republican legislators, many with their tails between their legs, simply slipped out of town without fanfare or fond farewells.

The Democrats

For their part, the Democrats were largely subsumed by the governor before, during and after both the regular and special session. The actions of the Republican House leadership, far from achieving their desired end, merely unified the Democrats to stand and vote in a block against the Republicans, even when Republicans put more money into education or proposed a $500 rebate for families with kids in college. In what became a repetitive rhetorical battle, not a day went by that House Democratic leaders didn’t stand on the floor and denounce the Republican budget manipulations.

To be sure, some wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, with control of the Senate and the Governor’s Office, the Democrats really did have the final word on virtually every legislative issue. The Senate whacked about half of the Republican budget bills, consolidating them back into four major bills. Plus, as expected, the Demos added more money to each bill—not just bringing appropriations back up to the governor’s proposals, but exceeding the overall budget levels by tens of millions of dollars in spite of pleas by Senate leadership to hold the line on spending.

Despite their best efforts, however, time treated the Democrats no more kindly than it did the Republicans. In the end, the Dems shared both the blame and the shame of ending a session without achieving either their budgetary or tax policy goals. The public, rightly or wrongly, really didn’t make a great distinction as to who was responsible for the debacle of ending a session with the major work unaccomplished. The Dems, like their Republican counterparts across the aisle, faced a hostile and unimpressed constituency at session’s end.

The Deal

Once the regular session was adjourned, Schweitzer announced he was giving the legislators time to go home, face the voters and explain why they couldn’t get the job done in the allotted time. But being who he is, Schweitzer also tossed out some rather harsh barbs that stuck in the craws of Demos and Republicans alike. Accusing legislators of “drinking whiskey and eating thick steaks,” and doing the work of the lobbyists instead of the people, Schweitzer ground large grain salt into open wounds.

To his credit, Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, admitted there had been a lack of negotiation between the House, Senate and Governor’s Office, and urged that all parties dial down the shrill denunciations. To that end, Cooney offered to meet with Republican leaders in Billings to see what agreements they could reach on ending the stalemate.

In the meantime, a group of Republicans realized their party was in deep trouble, in large part due to Lange’s outburst and the manner in which it tipped public opinion against them. Something, they realized, must be done to get the session’s failure—and their part in it—out of the spotlight. To that end, a dozen Republican legislators, including a humbled Lange, proposed a meeting with members of the Schweitzer administration in a lodge owned by Rep. John Ward, R-Helena.

The product of that daylong meeting became the deal that laid the way for the special session. Longtime political observers predicted from the outset that the governor would try to pick off a few Republican votes to get his legislative package passed, and indeed, that’s just what happened in the end.

Once the deal was cut, the governor leaped to call a special session before it fell apart. With the help of his log cabin Republicans—who were in open revolt against their own leadership—virtually every component of the deal was passed as the demoralized and radically divided Republicans simply folded their tent and went home in total, humiliating defeat.

The Result

What actually got passed through the special session was almost identical to the package Schweitzer first brought to the regular session. Republicans, who wanted what they termed “permanent” property tax relief saw their proposals go down in flames as the governor’s $400 one-time rebate for property owners was adopted. Likewise, their proposal for a rebate for families with kids in college was killed while Schweitzer’s plan to temporarily cap college tuition was passed. The one major part of the governor’s tax proposal that wasn’t approved was an expansion of the Department of Revenue to ostensibly go after out-of-state property owners who sell real estate in Montana without paying taxes.

Schweitzer’s proposal to spend $15 million to acquire new state parks and fishing access sites was also passed, despite objections by Republicans who had killed the proposal in the regular session. Funding for full-time kindergarten was approved; the children’s health insurance program, CHIP, was expanded; $100 million was poured into the Department of Corrections for new facilities and programs; and the Public Employees Retirement System and the Teacher’s Retirement System both received significant one-time contributions to head off a projected funding liability.

On the environmental side of the equation, the session was almost a wash. None of the most egregious bills to slash environmental laws passed. On the other hand, other than a few minor bills, nothing significant passed, either. There was no massive infusion of money into energy conservation or reclamation and restoration. A bill to ban the burning of tires or hazardous waste in cement kilns and industrial facilities never made it out of the House. A stream access bill, while not environmental in nature, met its end at the hands of House Republicans, adding yet another black mark in their book full of black marks for the session.

Energy, which seems to be the sole focus of the Schweitzer administration these days, made some, but not many, advances. The governor’s much-touted tax breaks for “clean and green” energy development were jammed through the special session after dying in the regular session. Sad to say, most of the tax breaks will likely go to those who are producing export energy, not to help lower Montanans’ energy bills. House Bill 25, which attempts to address the damage done by Montana’s disastrous decision to deregulate energy, once again allows the state’s default supplier, NorthWestern Energy, to build or acquire their own energy production facilities and to pass the costs on to consumers. While it won’t do anything to reduce current energy costs, the hope is that it will eventually hold down price increases by providing sources other than the open market for future energy needs.


The dust is still settling from the special session and, with any luck, none of the quickly-passed and minimally-debated bills that were jammed through the five-day ordeal will wind up being in conflict with existing laws or each other. But then again, it wouldn’t be unusual, given the sheer size and complexity of the measures to find it necessary to call another short special session to correct any oversights.

For now, however, Schweitzer and the Democrats can claim a clear victory over the dispirited and disheartened Republicans. In a nutshell, Schweitzer and the Democrats got virtually everything they wanted. The Republicans, on the other hand, achieved none of their stated goals—they didn’t get permanent property tax relief, they didn’t stop all-day kindergarten, they didn’t slash environmental laws and they didn’t hold down government growth and spending.

The fallout from what can only be deemed the total failure of Republican leadership has already begun—but is certainly not over. Lange was ousted by his own House caucus as majority leader and replaced with Rep. Dennis Himmelberger, R-Billings. Lange still talks of his political future, but that’s simply a fantasy. The log cabin Republicans who cut the secret deal with the Schweitzer administration undoubtedly will face some primary challenges come next election cycle as payback for their mutiny. For now, however, there’s not enough juice, influence or power left in the Republican leadership to be much of a threat to anyone.

And while it would seem Schweitzer comes away as the conquering hero, his armor and shield are notched and tarnished, too. In the closing hours of the special session, Senator Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, revolted against the administration’s heavy-handed tactics and Schweitzer’s personal attacks and denounced the governor as a “bully.” While that particular moniker was tossed around a lot during the session, it was largely Republicans who did it in public while the Dems griped about it in private. But make no mistake, the governor’s derogatory comments about politics in general are unlikely to produce a positive effect on public perception or increase involvement in the public policy arena.

Nor did Schweitzer’s propensity for being out of state during the session serve him well. The public noticed how much time he spent in the air and on both coasts instead of attending to business during the regular session. The failure to finish the session’s work—to say nothing of its nasty tenor—falls at Schweitzer’s feet, too.

With the 2007 Legislature over, only the future will tell us how well the work was wrought once the policies and expenditures are finally implemented. And somewhere down the line, we’ll find out whether or not the needs and interests of ordinary Montanans were well-served; whether the budget is, in fact, sustainable; whether tax breaks will induce energy development; and whether that turns out to be a desirable outcome for the state and its environment.
Politics, for both the winners and the losers, will go on. We’ll all be hearing much more than we ever wanted to about who said what, who was responsible for what, and who was to blame. After all, in the political world, the 2008 elections are looming.

Lessons learned

Missoula’s lone Republican representative discusses the fallout

In a session as legendarily contentious and bitterly partisan as the 60th meeting of the Montana Legislature, it’s a bit surprising that one of the highlights of Republican Rep. Bill Nooney’s first term in office was working with Democrats.

Each week, Nooney—Missoula’s sole Republican legislator—met over dinner with 20 or so fellow freshman representatives from both parties to talk about issues, argue bills and generally to get to know one another.

One of the first things to come out of those informal meetings was a plan to have every member of the freshman class of the House of Representatives support House Bill 193, a proposal that allows disabled hunters to hunt from an off-highway-vehicle (OHV) in areas where OHVs are permitted.

“It was a thing where we were all trying to work together,” Nooney said from his cabin near Seeley Lake in the week after the close of the special session. “We made a promise to each other while we were doing this that when we’re in leadership positions—if we continue with legislative work—that we’ll treat each other with respect. One of our objectives for our freshman class was to change the way that people treat each other in the Legislature.”

It was an important lesson for Nooney considering how divisive the rest of the session was. Nooney, who won his first election in November 2006, said prior to the regular session that he was confident both parties could work together to reach consensus on education, health care, taxes and energy issues.

“I don’t think anybody is going to sit there and throw bombs at each other,” he predicted before the session convened.

But after 95 legislative days marked by excruciatingly long stalemates, profanity-laced public outbursts and petty name-calling, the exact opposite ended up dominating the session. It’s left Nooney both emotionally and physically drained.

“We’ve seen this session be very contentious, and I just wasn’t comfortable with a lot of what happened,” Nooney says.

One of the primary reasons for that negative tone, Nooney concedes, was due to the strategy put forth by House Republicans in the early days of the session.

“I think the Republican strategy during the session in terms of breaking HB 2 [the primary budget bill] into parts…made that gap and made that contention even more,” Nooney says. “Republicans were trying to leverage whatever we could to get whatever we could because we were outnumbered. Right or wrong, that was the strategy and there was a number of things leadership did to try to leverage our position as much as possible, and I think that just drove the wedge even further.”

While he says he agreed with the idea to break up HB 2 into separate bills, Nooney says he was disappointed in the Republican leadership’s strategy to wait until late in the session to introduce that plan. He characterizes the withholding as his first “low point” in the session.

“I guess if it were me I would have rolled out that plan…a long time ago. I think that did a lot to push the Democrats away from us,” he says.

After the regular 90-day legislative session adjourned on April 27 without an approved state budget, Nooney was one of 13 Republicans who agreed to meet with staff from the gSchweitzer administration to hash out some kind of an agreement on how to move forward. Nooney was invited to the log cabin meeting by Conrad Republican Llew Jones, who he had shared his discontent during the regular session.

“I was uneasy [about the meeting] at first, but the longer I was there the easier it was,” Nooney recalls. “We talked about areas we agreed on and areas we disagreed on, and we talked about the principles of each one of those things.”

The result of that meeting was a package of loose compromises that eventually led to final resolutions on the state budget, a tax relief package, a school funding plan and an incentive package for the development of “clean and green” energy projects.

House Speaker Scott Sales, who wasn’t invited to the meeting and wasn’t aware of it at the time it occurred, later said the log cabin gathering “neutered” House Republicans, and accused the 13 Republicans who were there of “trad[ing] an awful lot for very little.” But in the end, Nooney says he’s happy with his record coming out of his first legislative session, and he wants to take what he learned this time around and run for a second term in 2008. He says his main objective if he returns to the legislature in 2009 will be to continue to form good working relationships with his colleague on the other side of the aisle, such as the ones that produced HB 193.

“The log cabin thing was a step out of the norm. I believe the freshman bill [HB 193] was a step out from the norm,” Nooney says. “We’re tired of arguing and bickering and fighting. It’s just not worth it.”

—John S. Adams

What actually got done?

A look at six of the more important bills that passed

Montanans can hardly be blamed for losing sight of what legislators actually accomplished during the 2007 session. But aside from the partisan rankling and perilous procrastination leading up to the five-day special session that ended May 15, a number of important bills were passed. Of course, it wasn’t until the special session when the state’s most important issues—taxes, schools and a budget—were decided.

In cased you missed it, the upshot of the special session was:

• Homeowners were given a one-time $400 property tax rebate.

• Tax breaks for renters and those who pay business equipment taxes were scuttled.

• Public schools were issued about $140 million more for the next two years, along with funding for optional all-day kindergarten.

• Tuition at Montana colleges was frozen for the biennium.

• The state budget as a whole totals $7.8 billion and includes increased funding for some social programs, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Revenue.

While those were the big-ticket items of the special session, here’s a look at some of the other important bills passed by the Legislature during the regular session:

HB 25:

This controversial bill aims to partially re-regulate Montana’s energy industry, about a decade after the debacle known as deregulation was enacted. By locking in NorthWestern Energy’s customer base, proponents say HB 25 will allow the state’s major electric and gas utility to pursue long-term creation of lower-cost power. Its provisions allow the potential for new coal-fired power plants, but only if they include carbon capture and sequestration. When Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the bill May 14, he said it could help rein in future electricity costs by converting from market-based electricity to rates based upon costs, plus a rate of return.

SB 363:

Widely popular, this bill clarifies the state’s eminent domain law to say that government may only condemn property for the purpose of public projects such as highways or airports. Legislators say its passage should clear up fears that government could seize private land to hand over to developers, a recent national issue spawned by the Supreme Court’s Kelo case and last year’s unsuccessful efforts in Montana to pass a ballot measure on the eminent domain issue.

SB 544:

By establishing standards for Montana-grown natural beef and an accompanying marketing program, legislators hope to bring together those who raise cattle for a living and those looking to buy products that satisfy a growing interest in naturally and locally grown meat. In the coming months, Montana’s Department of Livestock will create and operate a Montana-certified natural beef program.

SB 200:

The unstable Mike Horse mine and dam site near Lincoln has long been a major concern for those who treasure the cleanliness of the Blackfoot River and the viability of its fishery. This bipartisan bill allows Montana’s Department of Justice to pursue litigation with the aim of cleaning up the area. Besides authorizing the pursuit of reparation to restore the site that’s languished for lack of funding, the bill also creates a natural resource damage program policy committee to help guide the Mike Horse litigation and other state lawsuits that concern natural resource damage.

HB 259:

Co-sponsored by Missoula Reps. Michelle Reinhart, Kevin Furey and Dave McAlpin, this bill provides for residential gray water reuse systems and directs the Board of Environmental Review to establish permits governing them. It clears the way for people who want to reduce their water use by utilizing gray water (wastewater that’s separate from sewage and doesn’t contain hazardous wastes) for watering lawns and the like.

SB 201:

Indy readers in the Missoula, Bitterroot, Mission and Flathead valleys are all too aware of how difficult planning for growth is, especially in the gray zones where cities extend out into the counties. This bipartisan bill encourages cities and counties to work together to adopt standards and plans for community infrastructure and private development. With diverse supporters such as the Montana Smart Growth Coalition and the Montana Association of Realtors, it’s clear that many hope these new provisions will help cities and counties wrap their collective heads around the constant challenge of planning for Montana’s growth.

—Jessie McQuillan
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