Ochenski: Opportunity knocking 

Will Montana's Democrats answer the call?

The recently concluded Republican state convention in Missoula highlighted the obvious confusion and dissension currently plaguing Montana’s ruling party. While Gov. Martz’ inability to decide whether or not she will attempt a second term in office grabbed the headlines, the real story, which is far more damning than Judy’s fence-sitting, is the vacuum of Republican accomplishments and the total absence of a vision for the future. With the Republicans facing even more bad news when sky-high utility prices ravage Montanans this winter, the opportunity for new leadership in the state is obviously knocking for Montana’s Democrats. The question is: Will they answer the call? And if they do, what will they offer?

It’s not hard to see why Montana’s Repubs are floundering. So-called “trickle-down” economics, championed by the Reagan administration and virtually every Repub leader since, relies on transferring ever more wealth to mega-corporations and wealthy individuals on the theory that they will spend it and eventually it will “trickle down” to the rest of us. In Republo-speak (war is “peace,” secret government surveillance is “liberty,” and chopping down forests is “restoring them to health”) the theory works. As billions flow from the pockets of the working class to the top two percent of the ultra-wealthy, the richest Republicans are indeed getting richer. As for the other 98 percent of us, it’s doubtful we’ll live long enough to witness any crumbs trickling down from the tables of those robber barons.

This theory was firmly supported by former Gov. Marc Racicot, who was fond of promising Montanans that “a rising tide floats all boats.” Since Racicot didn’t stick around his home state to see how the theory worked in reality, he still spouts the same rhetorical nonsense for his buddy George Bush as they bob around with the millionaires and billionaires who are “floating” Bush on record high tides of campaign donations. Unfortunately, their tide is a long way from Montana, so most of our “boats” remain firmly stranded on the mud flats of our last-place wages.

Which is not to say that trickle-down economics haven’t produced results—they have. Giving away those massive tax breaks beggared our state treasury. And thanks to Repubs, so-called “barriers” to business, such as utility and environmental regulations, have been overcome through deregulation. The result so far? Major bankruptcies, massive layoffs, lost pensions, worthless stock and sky-high utility bills. Meanwhile, a host of speculative, coal-fired generation and coalbed methane proposals threaten to turn central and eastern Montana into an industrial wasteyard.

To get the big picture, the state’s fiscal woes must be overlaid with Bush’s federal policies. Given the trillions in long-term debt from tax giveaways and the exploding military budgets Bush’s global aggression is creating, it’s likely there won’t be new money to help the states. Meanwhile, cuts in federal health, education, social and environmental programs are already going into effect.

So where are the Democrats and what are they going to do about it?

Brian Schweitzer, the only announced Demo candidate for governor, recently put forth the goals he feels need to be accomplished to “get Montana out of the bottom of the economic barrel.” These include investing in main-street businesses, making prescription drugs more affordable, pooling small businesses to obtain affordable health insurance, and “investing in education.”

These are all worthwhile goals, and they’re definitely headed in the right direction. Taking care of Montana’s existing small businesses makes a lot more sense than catering to Martzian daydreams of new mega-plants. Nor can one argue against “investing in education,” or taking care of our citizens’ health and welfare.

What’s missing, however, is how we get from where we are, which is trapped in a horrific fiscal and regulatory imbalance, to where we need to be. Those steps are complex, crucial, and they require the cooperation of the Demo party if they have any chance of becoming reality.

The challenge is daunting. Fourteen years of Republican governors and ten full years of Republican-controlled legislatures have done enormous and widespread damage to Montana. Those hoping to lead the state can start just about anywhere, and the only direction to go is up.

Consider education funding, for instance. State funding for the University System has dwindled as hundreds of millions disappeared from Montana’s tax base through the Repub-sponsored cuts. The top five “tax winners” in the Repub giveaway walked off with an estimated $7.5 million in the first year—and not one of those companies is headquartered in Montana. Nonetheless, the cash that flowed out of the state and into the coffers of these mega-corporations is now unavailable to educate our kids, provide health care, fund Head Start, or help Montana’s most needy, who are experiencing huge cuts under the current GOP budget.

Given Montana’s fiscal condition, how much can Schweitzer, the Dems, or anyone else plan to “invest in education”? New or higher taxes on normal Montanans, who are struggling just to meet the skyrocketing utility prices resulting from our deregulation disaster, are out of the question. Every state coffer that could be tapped has already been drained, most of them years ago.

Politicians who want to educate our kids, take care of social problems, and put the state back on an even keel should formulate and distribute a realistic plan to do so. What do we really need; how much is it going to cost; who is going to pay; and who will benefit? And what will be done about our existing problems, including dereg’s runaway utility costs and the looming pollution threats?

One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different outcome. In spite of Gov. Martz’ stated intentions, neither she nor the Republican convention brought forth any new ideas to address the problems their old ideas are causing. To keep following those old ideas and somehow expect a different outcome is, by definition, insane.

Opportunity is knocking for the Democrats. Will they answer the call?

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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