Ochenski: Modest proposal 

Time to put Martz' Coal Tax raid to bed

By now it’s abundantly clear to everyone except Gov. Martz that her plan to rip off the Coal Tax Trust Fund for $93 million to balance the budget is toast. Simply put, it ain’t happening. The Legislature should move quickly to euthanize the proposal and get on with real solutions to Montana’s current budget woes.

Those who happened to be in the Capitol last Friday were shocked to see only two, that’s right, just two proponents at the hearing for the Governor’s plan. And who were they? The director of the Governor’s budget office, Chuck Swysgood, and Martz’ chief policy advisor, Tom Beck. Both men were just doing their job, directed by the Governor, and paid by the taxpayers, to support her doomed idea. Martz herself, who has been so vocal about the virtues of ripping off the Trust, declined to walk down to the first floor and testify in support of her own plan. Which says a lot. Not one other soul, not a single legislator, citizen, business owner, or even one of the ever-present lobbyists showed up to support the Governor’s bill.

Those opposing the measure were there in force, how- ever, beginning with former Secretary of State Verner Bertelsen. At 84, this frail-looking, white-haired defender of the state’s Coal Trust was around when the Trust was established in the ’70s and has been to virtually every session of the Legislature to fight the myriad attempts to drain it. Notably, Bertelsen is not some wild-eyed tax-and-spend liberal, but a Republican whose idea of fiscal conservatism means just that—conserving the Trust that is the fiscal backbone of the state. Bertelsen drew himself up, stared into the eyes of the committee members, and once again told another Legislature why tapping the Trust was a bad, short-sighted idea.

He was followed by former Speaker of the House, Hal Harper. Although decades younger than Bertelsen, Harper served in the Montana Legislature for 26 years and, like Bertelsen, has seen someone claim “a rainy day” reason to bust the Trust every session since it was established. Harper rolled through the litany of benefits Montanans derive from the Trust—from saving taxpayers millions in property taxes by funding local infrastructure projects through the Treasure State Endowment program, to helping farmers and ranchers pay for water development projects.

Harper, who began his long political career as a Republican but switched over to the Democrats, was the sponsor of the Treasure State Endowment program over a decade ago. Harper capped his testimony by sharing some of his long experience with similar bills over the years, and called Martz’ trust-busting proposal, “a hatchet between the parties in the Legislature that must be buried” so both parties could “get to work on real solutions”—not ripping off the Trust to bail out the Martz administration. Harper, like Bertelsen, was there on his own time and money, too.

Rep. David Wanzenreid, the Democrat leader in the House, not only opposed the Martz ripoff, but put his own countermeasure on the table. If the majority party is interested in short-term fixes, posited this cagey, experienced leader, then they should take a look at his proposal to borrow $93 million from Workers Comp surplus funds instead of the Trust. Although he expressed disapproval of any short-term fixes with “one time money,” Wanzenreid accurately pointed out that his proposal would only take a majority vote to pass—unlike the three-fourths supermajority required to bust the Trust under the Martz plan. Taking the money from the Work Comp surplus also makes it far more likely the Legislature would actually pay it back, since not doing so would put pressure on both businesses and workers.

Which brings us back to the Governor and her not-so-great and not very original idea. If, as the Martz administration is proudly crowing, Montana’s economy is so hot, then why do we need to turn to desperate measures like busting the Trust to balance our budget? If “the good times are just ahead,” as we’ve been told over and over by Republican governors for the last 14 years, then why can’t we balance on-going expenditures with on-going revenues instead of stealing the inheritance of the future? Could it be that what we have been told is simply wishful thinking, broadcast from the bully pulpit as reality?

Wishful thinking, however, won’t cut it this time around, and the truth of the matter is that Martz’ Coal Trust ripoff is dead meat. No matter how many times the turtle nods its head “yes,” far too many in the state are shaking their heads “no.” As predicted by virtually everyone except the Governor, Martz’ Trust ripoff was indeed “Dead on Arrival” at the Legislature.

Truth be told, the Work Comp loan is equally likely to die. As former Speaker of the House Harper said, it’s time to “bury the hatchet” of short-term bailouts and get to work on real solutions to the very real problems at hand. To his credit, President of the Senate Bob Keenan has been working with Democrats Wanzenreid and Sen. Jon Tester to forge the solutions that will involve a mix of prioritized cuts and targeted revenue measures—the kind of real solutions that should have been in the Governor’s budget right from the start, but were not. Instead, Gov. Martz sent the Legislature a fantasy budget “balanced” by a raid on the Coal Trust.

So here’s a modest proposal. The Legislature could find millions to spend on necessities like education, health, and human services by significantly reducing the bloated $7 million budget for the Governor’s Office to a level commensurate with its feeble efforts. Putting the full-time Highway Patrol security back on the highway, closing the dormant Office of Economic Opportunity, dumping the spinmeisters, and thinning down the 13 registered lobbyists operating out of the Governor’s Office would be a good start. Given her dismal track record, I’m betting that move would get all the votes it needs.

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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