Ochenski: Rubbing out the trail 

Racicot may not remember dereg, but Montana will

Strange things happened when Montana’s former Gov. Marc Racicot came home last week to toss a $1,000-a-plate political fundraiser dinner in Billings starring none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. It was strange enough to see our shadowy veep out of the “undisclosed locations” where he apparently spends most of his time plotting the takeover of the world’s petroleum supplies. Even stranger, though, was Racicot’s refusal to take any blame whatsoever for Montana’s deregulation disaster—a disaster he, more than anyone, helped engineer and enable.

It is understandable that Racicot, had he been reading or watching the Montana news, might be a little touchy about the whole deregulation issue. After all, at the very moment our “most popular” ex-governor was squeezing out campaign donations for Bush’s continuing deregulation agenda, his corporate co-conspirators at Touch America were auctioning off the sorry remnants of the once rich and powerful Montana Power Company at a Delaware bankruptcy sale.

Ironically, Racicot’s fundraiser also coincided with the free fall of NorthWestern Energy stock after being downgraded and de-listed by major investment firms. NorthWestern bought Montana Power Company’s gas and electric transmission assets and is now Montana’s “default supplier” for those utilities. With $2.2 billion in debt and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, the question of how the company will get suppliers to advance the natural gas stockpiles and long-term electricity contracts it needs to supply more than 300,000 Montana residential and business customers remains unanswered. The much-vaunted “utility competition” and lower utility prices touted by Racicot when he led the effort to deregulate electricity in 1997 have simply failed to materialize.

Having just watched one of Montana’s longest and strongest utilities dissolve into dust, the NorthWestern situation is not comforting. The death-spiral of de-listing, downgrading and bankruptcy is all-too-familiar these days. So is the outrageous pilfering being conducted by corporate executives, who pad their own accounts with millions in salaries, bonuses and perks while the companies they were hired to run go broke. Billions in Montana Power Company assets were liquidated in the company’s transformation into Touch America. But the bankruptcy auction will be lucky to produce a dime on the dollar for creditors. The laid-off employees, stock, pension, or bond holders who trusted and invested in the company will be lucky to get anything.

Apparently, everyone in the state knows energy deregulation has been a disaster for Montana except Marc Racicot. The loss of MPC investments was tragic, but the continuing impacts to every resident and business that now faces soaring utility rates and an uncertain supply goes on and on. At this point, there is no foreseeable end to Montana’s utility quagmire.

The same morning paper that announced Racicot’s $175,000 fundraising haul quoted Gary Buchanan, investment adviser and the state’s first commerce director, calling for a special legislative session to form a statewide energy co-op as “our last chance to salvage our losses from our self-inflicted wounds.” If last year’s initiative to buy back the dams was on the ballot now, Buchanan says it would pass, noting “the Montana public feels bamboozled” and has never had a higher “level of anger” than over the energy debacle.

If Racicot somehow missed Buchanan’s front-page article, perhaps he was in Billings on Sunday, when CBS’ shocking 60 Minutes report on the deregulation disaster was re-aired. It would have been a wake-up call for Racicot to see his co-conspirator Bob Gannon, the CEO who led the destruction of both MPC and Touch America, labeled “the most hated man in Montana.”

It may have given Racicot some insight into just how angry people are over deregulation to see Gannon flee from the CBS television cameras—or to hear the story of the funeral in Butte where Gannon was refused an empty seat in church by a feisty old lady because she thought people were “gunning for Gannon,” and she didn’t want him sitting next to her because she was “unwilling to take a bullet” for him.

Or maybe the blunt words from the patrons of Butte’s famous M&M would have pierced Racicot’s veil of denial. Although the bar hadn’t closed or locked its doors in 119 years at the time the 60 Minutes interviews were filmed, it is now defunct—just like the mines that were driven to closure, not by the environmental protections against which Racicot and Martz love to rail and have all but eliminated, but by the skyrocketing utility costs their disastrous policies have precipitated.

Yet, astoundingly, former Gov. Racicot flew in and out of Billings while all this was happening and, with a straight face, told reporters: “There is no causal relationship to deregulation and (electricity) costs.” Instead, Racicot blamed “a lack of transmission capacity” and “limitation of production” for our wildly increased energy costs. That Montana produces twice the electricity we consume, and that for a century we had reliable power that was the sixth cheapest in the nation, were simply inconvenient facts that Racicot chose to ignore. Just like in the old movies, Racicot seems to think he can simply rub out his trail with the brushy bough of denial and escape connection to the disaster his policies wrought.

This tendency to deny the truth in favor of blind ideology seems endemic to the Bush administration. Yet, just as Bush is finding out with his fabricated “intelligence” on Iraq uranium imports and weapons of mass destruction, the old “brush out the tracks” tactic doesn’t work as well in real life as it does in the movies—especially with the tank tracks left behind as Bush led us to an unjustified war or, as in Racicot’s case, to the destruction of Montana’s formerly stable utility structure. Montanans know it was Racicot who set the stage and led us into our utility, fiscal and economic quandaries. To their horror, Americans are only now discovering the much worse foreign and domestic quagmires into which Racicot’s buddy, President Bush, has led our country.

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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