Montana: back in balance 

There's good news and there's bad news

Montana’s election returns are still rolling in as this column goes to print, but one thing seems undeniably certain: Montanans, having suffered through more than a decade of one-party control of state government, have cast their ballots to bring the state back into balance—which should move public policy-making away from the deaf, dumb and blind partisanship of recent years and back toward real debate, with logic and facts instead of sheer political muscle. Although control of the Montana House and Senate was still undecided, for the first time since 1988, a Democrat, Brian Schweitzer, will return to the governor’s office. This, in and of itself, moves a huge weight on the balance scale of government, since Gov.-elect Schweitzer, while not controlling the Legislature, wields significant power through control of the executive branch agencies and the ability to veto any given piece of legislation that lands on his desk.

What this means in a closely divided Legislature, which is what we will have, is that those hoping to see their bills pass into law will have to craft them to be acceptable to both political parties. Gone are the Republican glory days when, holding two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office, they could simply ignore Democratic concerns.

Perhaps the leading reason Montanans voted for a return to political balance is our collective and costly experience with the incredible fallout from the one-party decision to deregulate our electricity supply. The huge and complex deregulation bill was stuffed through the 1997 Legislature at the 11th hour in a concerted push by then-Gov. Racicot, the Republican-controlled Legislature, and a horde of lobbyists for the former Montana Power Company. Democrats put up great arguments that, given Montana’s vast distances and small population, deregulation was unlikely to produce the competitive market advantages its supporters promised.

As our recent history sorrowfully shows, the critics of the minority were right while Racicot, the Republican legislative majorities and their power company cronies were terribly wrong. Montana gave away one of its premier resources—cheap, reliable electricity—for a one-party pipe dream that never came to pass. Instead, we watched in horror as our generating assets were sold to the highest out-of-state bidder and our utility rates went up and up and up. The gravity of this error has become so undeniably clear that recently even John Harp, the former Republican Senate majority leader who requested the drafting of the deregulation bill, and one of the prime movers behind its passage, has publicly renounced the move as a huge mistake.

The lesson learned from such corporate predation undoubtedly had much to do with the voters’ sound rejection of I-147, the attempt by Canyon Resources to overturn the state’s existing ban on cyanide heap leach mining. Normally, dumping $3 million into a media blitz, as Canyon Resources did, would almost ensure passage of an initiative. But not after the harsh lessons of dereg. Perhaps now that its attempt to buy the Montana election has failed, Canyon Resources can get to work cleaning up the pollution at its defunct Kendall Mine instead of planning the devastation of our cherished Blackfoot River.

In other good election news, the Democrat sweep of the state’s top five elected offices retained Attorney General Mike McGrath, State Auditor John Morrison and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch while replacing Secretary of State Bob Brown with Democrat Bill Kennedy. Add Schweitzer’s win, and the Democrats take full control of the state Land Board, which makes critical decisions on the use and development of Montana’s 5.2 million acres of state trust lands. Hopefully this will bring the hypocritical coalbed methane development policies of Martz’ lap-dog administration to a quick end and steer the management of trust lands away from the wholesale hawking of finite resources and into a more sustainable direction.

Montanans also showed their compassion in the overwhelming passage of I-148, the medical marijuana initiative. Although pressured and threatened by the Bush administration’s deputy drug czar, Montanans voted to allow our citizens who are suffering and in pain to legally seek relief through the use of medically prescribed marijuana. Given the numbers, it is unlikely the next Legislature would do anything so brash as to attempt an overturn of the popular vote.

While Montanans, who have experienced and soundly rejected one-party rule, moved wisely to bring the state back into political balance, unfortunately the nation as a whole has apparently not yet learned that lesson. Republicans retain their rough-handed control of Congress and, with Bush’s win, single-party control of the nation will undoubtedly reap horrendous consequences. The massive budget deficits, promised privatization of Social Security, continuation of armed aggression, devastation of the environment, and ongoing international tensions will continue. And the military draft, the one Bush said wouldn’t happen if he was president, is lurking right around the corner. Lacking any balance whatsoever in the decision-making process, we can only hang on for what is likely to be a very rough four years on the national level.

As a good friend said recently, perhaps it will take the continued disintegration of America’s standing in the world under Bush’s benighted leadership to bring about much-needed change in our country. How much more can Bush take from the poor and give to the rich? How many more young American soldiers will have to die in pointless invasions of non-threatening countries? And how many more oil wars can we afford to fight before the nation, following the example of Montana, rejects one-party rule and returns a semblance of balance, vision and sustainability to our national leadership?

That question must remain unanswered for now, but the close election from a divided populace indicates the national pendulum is beginning to swing away from the far right and back toward the middle. In the meantime, however, now that we have some political balance back, there’s plenty of healing to be done right here in good old Montana.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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