Ochenski: Pressure cooker 

With the half-way point looming, the Lege still doesn't get it

Anyone who was around the Legislature last week can tell you that there was a not-so-subtle change in the air of the Capitol. Mysteriously, temperatures seemed to rise while relations got a lot chillier. The battle lines in this dance for power are being drawn in Helena—and the future of Montana lies in the outcome.

If anything, the Democrats seem more solid this session than at any time in the recent past. Bolstered by their wins in the House and Senate, their image as the feisty defenders of the public has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of a decade in the much-punished minority. Maybe, like they say, you can only push people so far—and then they fight back. The Republican reliance on busting the Coal Trust seems, if anything, to have united the minority against what is stacking up to be their weakest opposition in recent times. They’re willing to work with Repubs on lots of stuff—both spending and cuts—but not on busting the trust.

The unpopularity of Gov. Judy Martz continues to dog the Republican party and is causing problems within the legislative majorities. The Governor threatens to veto any new taxes, for instance. But some say the Legislature holds the supermajority votes needed to override the Governor’s veto. No matter what side of that line you dance on, there’s no denying the evident disconnects between legislative leaders and the Martz administration that are slipping into the news stories daily.

Good examples are the numerous revenue bills that the Republicans have in the hopper. There are a couple sales tax bills, general fee increases for registering your vehicle or buying a conservation license every year, higher taxes on tossing back a beer, and some statewide levies for a variety of purposes. Whether you agree with those purposes or not—and many are noble—they are just what they look like: higher taxes. Remember, I’m talking about the Republicans here—not the Demos.

If heavy is the head that wears the crown, it is no wonder the Repubs are seeing some serious cracks in their rhetorical walls. Truth be told, the state has been grubbing for funds for much of the last two decades, through Democrat as well as Republican administrations. Virtually every trust fund that could be taken vanished long ago, as well as all the “one time funding” sources creative bookkeeping could produce.

Except for one: The Coal Tax Trust Fund, which hasn’t been broken for general fund spending since it was established over a generation ago. Which is where at least one of the power showdowns comes in. The Repubs refuse to let Martz’s Bust the Coal Trust bill onto the floor of the House for debate. Nearly every day, the Demos say “bring it up and get it over with” and nearly every day, their attempts are quashed and the bill remains locked in committee, supposedly awaiting amendments from the Governor’s office. Really, this part of the dance is starting to seem kind of clumsy. If the votes aren’t there, they should quit wasting time and get on with it. The political pressure to weaken and split the Democrats seems to be having the opposite effect—driving them together, making them stronger.

As the session marches resolutely toward its half-way point at the end of February, all the general bills that don’t appropriate or raise money will have to be transferred to the opposite house or die. While those bills won’t solve the budget crisis, many will definitely have some dramatic effects on our environment and quality of life. And almost none of them for the better.

They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. Nonetheless, the majority continues to dole out tax breaks and trash what little remains of our pollution-control laws in hopes of stimulating the economy. In the hot floor debate on a Republican bill to overturn the game farm initiative, the dominant and insulting theme from the legislative majority was that Montanans were too dumb to know what we were voting for when we approved the initiative. Similar threats to assail the citizen-approved cyanide mining ban are also afoot. I suspect most Montanans knew exactly what they were voting for on both counts, and even diehard Repubs are starting to get antsy about how the public might view this arguably arrogant behavior and the continuing efforts to, as one long-time observer put it, “foul our own nest.”

In one of the most unbelievable examples, Sen. Fred “can’t get it right” Thomas, the guy who brought us electricity deregulation, term limits, and a ton of other bad ideas, now thinks we should spend scarce state dollars to do exploratory work on the Otter Creek coal deposits. What Thomas overlooks is that the coal has been available for a long time and no one has ever bothered to mine it before. Even the lobbyist for the Montana Coal Council, who never met a chunk of black carbon he didn’t love, thinks it’s a losing proposition.

All this is weighing on Republicans—as it should. The oft-repeated “tax and spend” Demo theme has merit, for not so long ago, it was the Demos who wore the crown. They, too, had to match spending with revenue, raised taxes, became unpopular, and were voted out of power. If the Repubs raise taxes, they’ll be unpopular. If they cut crucial services, they’ll likewise be unpopular. The Governor’s already hugely unpopular. The question is: How much unpopularity can the Repubs garner before, bada-bing, their old pals the Demos march back into the Gov’s office and take back a legislative majority?

The pressure under the Capitol dome is rising rapidly. Sooner or later ideology and reality are likely to collide somewhere in or around the increasingly desperate Republican caucus. When this happens, heads up for the bad ideas that are likely to come squirting out.

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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