Ochenski: Charge of the blame brigade 

Sorting through the aftermath of the 2003 session

The 2003 Legislature ended Saturday, and clearly this wasn’t a session that will go down in the history books for its accomplishments. If historians bother to write about it at all, they will probably note that it was primarily distinguished by its lack of vision, inability to work cohesively, procedural incompetence and irresponsible fiscal maneuvering that leaves the state in a worse position than when it started. A historic version of events won’t be written for awhile, however, and in the meantime, Montanans should get ready for another dose of distasteful politics as we enter post-session finger-pointing during which those responsible for the session’s ugly outcome try desperately to find someone else to blame.

Leading the charge of the blame brigade will be none other than Speaker of the House Doug Mood. For those of us who watched Mood struggle on a daily basis just to make it through the routine procedures necessary to run the House of Representatives, the mere thought of having this guy laud the merits of his work on a statewide tour to “market Republican legislative successes” is nothing short of nauseating.

Immediately after the final gavel fell, Mood dubbed the Legislature’s work “stellar.” Obviously Mood, like all too many Republican politicians these days, made the mistake of taking his own party’s political spin seriously. Let’s see, just what about this session could be dubbed “stellar”? Perhaps in Mood’s dictionary, taking food from hungry seniors (as in hacking the budget for Meals on Wheels) would be dubbed a stellar accomplishment. Then again, denying treatment to the physically and mentally ill might be what qualifies as a “stellar” act in the Republican lexicon. Or how about shifting taxes onto the backs of the poor so you can give tax breaks to the rich? Certainly George Bush and his band of greedy global raper-scrapers might judge Mood’s leadership as “stellar,” but why would anyone else?

It’s tough to say what, if anything, about the 2003 legislative session qualifies as a “stellar” accomplishment. Certainly it’s not the legacy that legislators have left for the future. Mood and his cohorts continued a ten-year Republican tradition of gutting environmental regulations at the behest of any corporation that wants to take our resources and dump its wastes in our air, water, and lands. Thanks to their “stellar” vision of the future, Montana continues to relive its former role as a resource colony for out-of-state, out-of-country industries with no particular allegiance to or responsibility for future generations. Building coal-fired power plants to generate electricity we don’t need ensures once again that the corporate CEOs will get the gold, and Montanans, as usual, will get the shaft. Acid rain and deadly mercury fallout will remain behind when the millions in energy profits are sucked from the state.

Or maybe Mood, Martz, Keenan, or their pals will “market” their “legislative successes” by talking about the great job they did on the budget. Since it was the highest priority from day one, you might have expected a better outcome when so many “stellar” brains were concentrated on the task. But no, here again the results are dismal. Virtually everyone with any experience in state budgeting will tell you bluntly that what the 2003 session mostly did was dig the state further into a fiscal black hole for the foreseeable future through extensive use of one-time funding sources. “One-time” sources of revenue, such as moving money from the Old Workers Compensation Fund to the general fund, means that when the next session rolls into town in two years, it will face yet another structurally unbalanced budget wherein revenues don’t match expenditures. Ripping off one-time sources of funding is simply slapping another patch on the already bald retreads on which the Repubs are driving our state.

Given that their “successes” are virtually non-existent, what’s left for the Repubs to do on their statewide tour? Ah yes, that most basic of Republican political tenets: When you fail, always blame someone else. And who will they blame? Why, the Democrats, of course! Now some of you might wonder how it’s possible that the Democrats, who have not held control of either the Legislature or the governor’s office for more than 10 years, will wind up being blamed for the dismal outcome of the 2003 Legislature. Wonder no more, fellow Montanans. It’s obvious that because the Democrats didn’t go along with Gov. Martz’ irresponsible plan to bust the Coal Trust for on-going state spending, they, not the brilliant Republican leaders shining in our political firmament, are to blame.

Nothing, repeat, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, we should thank the Demos for standing their ground and sticking to the fiscally-responsible tenet that ongoing expenditures should be met by ongoing revenue. If the state is in such a terrible fix that we have to bust the Coal Trust just to stay afloat, obviously it’s time for one thing above all else: new leaders.

Martz, Mood, Keenan and company, through lack of experience or brainpower, couldn’t cut it, took the easy and irresponsible way out, and are now trying to blame the Demos for not voting with them. After all the big talk about “surgical” prioritization, in the end the Repubs reverted to primitive slash-and-burn, across-the-board budget cuts to get them out of town. Even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Karla Grey, who is herself a Republican, says “I don’t know if it will be possible to manage” the last-minute cuts to the judicial branch budget.

Mood’s traveling road show could do us all a great favor by just staying home and shutting up. We have listened to their hollow bluster for months now and, quite frankly, it’s very old and very stale. Being further subjected to their lame blame game, in the face of their obvious failures of leadership, only denigrates those who deserve praise, and rubs salt in the many wounds they have left across our state.

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

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