Ochenski: Halftime show 

Give the people what they voted for

Tomorrow the Legislature begins a five-day break at the half-way point in the 90-day session. Legislators will flee Helena, heading back to their homes in the towns and cities, farms and ranches from whence they came. The leaders from both political parties will put on a “halftime show,” trying their best to convince the populace that their parties have been doing “the peoples’ work” in the chambers of the Capitol. But for anyone who’s been watching the game, it’s pretty clear that large polluting industries, not the people, are still calling the plays in Helena.

The single dominant theme for the Republican majorities in the 2003 Legislature seems to be to overthrow the votes of the people on a number of critical issues. Restricting game farms, banning deadly cyanide heap-leach mining, and use of the tobacco settlement money for smoking-prevention programs have all been challenged so far. They have even reached down to the local level, arrogantly threatening to overturn municipally approved smoking bans. If the majority gets its way and runs roughshod over the brave but out-gunned minority, Montana voters will see all these issues on the ballot once again. And once again we will have the dubious benefit of being “educated” on the issues by those who profit from these deleterious activities.

Take game farms, for instance. Does anyone really believe that the same electorate who sent Republican majorities to the Legislature with their votes didn’t know what they were doing when they cast ballots to phase out game farms? Given the plague of Chronic Wasting Disease spawned on game farms and now killing wild deer and elk herds in dozens of states, Montanans wisely sought to preserve our healthy big game populations by phasing out the game farms that brought this always fatal affliction to our state. But even without the concerns of disease, there is something repulsive to Montanans about shooting penned elk or deer and calling it “hunting.” That’s why those same majorities voted to put an end to the practice and why the courts have upheld their right to do so.

Or how about the cyanide heap-leach ban? Once again, the same Montanans who sent Republican majorities to the Legislature also voted to prohibit new cyanide heap-leach operations. Were we stupid to do so? If you look at the evidence, there can be no doubt that the voice of the people was right on the money with this call. Every single cyanide heap-leach mine in the state’s history has resulted in disastrous and continuing surface and groundwater pollution. Adding insult to injury, it will be the people of this state, not the out-of-state companies that have gone bankrupt, who will pick up the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs left behind by these corporate pirates.

Back during the fight over the “clean water initiative,” corporations dumped millions into ad campaigns to assure us that our laws were strict enough to protect the populace and the vital resource of clean water on which we all depend. In one memorable ad, a corporate lobbyist takes a big drink of water from a stream running below the new and highly-touted Beal Mountain mine near Butte. Looking into the camera, the message is clear that if there was anything wrong with the water, the industry representative wouldn’t be foolish enough to drink it.

But that same stream, still running below the now-defunct mine, is so polluted with selenium that it has become toxic to the trout and other aquatic organisms that live there. What was clean is now polluted, and there’s no argument about the validity of the evidence. So why do some knuckle-headed legislators think there should be an argument, let alone a re-vote, on the cyanide heap-leach ban itself?

The same goes for the tobacco settlement money. A whopping 65 percent of the populace that sent Republican majorities to the Legislature approved the initiative to place 40 percent of the $30 million in annual tobacco settlement money into a health care trust fund, use 32 percent for tobacco-use prevention programs, put 17 percent into health insurance for low-income kids and adults and leave 11 percent for the state’s general fund.

“Not right,” say the all-knowing legislators, who claim we should be using the tobacco settlement money for other things. And so they are planning to send the issue back to the voters in spite of the known fact that tobacco use kills more people every year than alcohol, car wrecks, murder, suicide, AIDS, drugs, and fires combined. Again, anyone giving the voice of the people an objective review would have to conclude that Montanans did the right thing once again—and the 2003 Legislature is doing the wrong thing, once again.

These same legislative majorities are running amok in other arenas as well, continuing to trash environmental protections while toadying to corporate demands. This is nothing more than the agenda of “industry lapdog” Judy Martz being implemented through radical legislative proposals. But ask yourself this: In the era of widespread Enron-style scandals, where is the evidence that we have even the slightest reason to believe in greater corporate responsibility toward the environment, the economy, or anything else except fattening the wallets of top CEOs? Why would we want to give up our state to those who have repeatedly taken the gold and left us nothing but the shaft?

The plain and simple truth is that the good people of Montana deserve more respect than the Republican majorities of the 2003 Legislature are giving them. So when they come home on break, put on your own “halftime show” and thank those worn-out legislators who have been defending our votes and our environment. They’re not hard to find and most have a “D” behind their name. As for the others, tell ’em to get to work on the real issues like funding education, health care, and balancing the budget—and to quit trashing the initiatives and the environment.

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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