The state of things: Looking back on a tough year in Montana politics

Things looked good for Montana going into 2007. The state was sitting on a billion-dollar surplus with the treasury overflowing with oil and gas revenue. For Montana’s politicians, it was Fat City—all they had to do was divvy up the goods, and there were plenty to go around. But in the end, that wasn’t exactly the way it played out.

Deadlocked on arrival
When the dust settled from the 2006 elections, the Senate was deadlocked with 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans, but the pachyderms took the House by a narrow one-vote margin. Then Senator Sam Kitzenberg, a Glasgow Republican, decided to switch parties, giving Democrats control of the Senate. By switching sides at the same time he took a state job, Kitzenberg brought Republican accusations of a politically-motivated buy-out. Already aggravated by Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s aggressive but unsuccessful campaigning to overturn Republican-held seats, the Republicans were ready to fight when they finally showed up in Helena.

Before the first gavel fell, the Republican leadership, piloted by Bozeman’s Scott Sales as Speaker of the House, declared the session would be “a war”—and he was certainly right about that. Veteran Democratic legislators were deliberately bounced from committees on which they formerly served while Rep. Rick Jore, an avowed homeschooler and the lone Constitution Party legislator, was appointed chair of the Education Committee, throwing the Democrats into a frenzy.

Then Rep. John Sinrud, a Bozeman Republican who chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, threw the budget process into total disarray by breaking Schweitzer’s budget into several bills rather than the traditional single bill—a move that infuriated the governor and the Democrats. If it was a war the Republicans wanted, it was a war they were going to get.

Truth be told, the rest of the 90-day session followed the pattern set in the opening weeks, with both sides locked tightly in partisan blocs over virtually every major issue. Eventually, the daily party-line votes, with Democrats killing Republican bills and Republicans killing Democrat bills, became routine. The public was turned off. Legislators hated to face every day, and the governor, who was fit to be tied, began spending an inordinate amount of time out of state pushing coal development instead of trying to reach an agreement with the equally bull-headed Republicans.

Finally, in a thermonuclear blast of profanity, House Majority Leader Mike Lange, a Billings Republican, derided Schweitzer in front of the Republican caucus as “the S.O.B. on the second floor,” and accused him of “trying to run the state like a dictator.” In one of the most incredible acts of political self-destruction ever witnessed—and it was witnessed many times since it wound up on YouTube—Lange exploded, “My message to the governor is to stick it up your ass, stick it up your ass.”

Only days later the session ended exactly as it had begun—with both sides pointing fingers, laying blame, and trying to spin their way out of the public’s disgust. Historically, it marked the first time that a regular session of the Montana Legislature adjourned without passing a state budget.

Log Cabin Republicans
Despite the legislative train wreck, the state desperately needed to pass a budget so school districts could ascertain funding levels and state agencies could keep working.

Thanks to Lange, the Republicans were left embarrassed and tremendously weakened. In response, they removed Lange from his leadership position. Meanwhile, a handful of moderate Republicans held a secret meeting at a local Helena ranch with several members of the governor’s staff. These representatives, scornfully called the Log Cabin Republicans by their more conservative party members, agreed to vote with the Democrats to pass the budget in a special legislative session.

Gov. Schweitzer leaped at the chance, called the legislature back to town, and a week later it was over. The budget had been passed along with the governor’s pet energy legislation, and in a matter of days they succeeded in accomplishing what the previous 90-day session had not.

Carbon cop out
Schweitzer, dubbed the “Coal Cowboy” by East Coast media, toured the nation touting plans to develop what he called “clean and green” coal technologies. But the increasing pace of global warming and the rapidly changing economics of coal turned against him.

Projects Schweitzer had previously announced—such as a coal-to-liquids plant in Roundup—went belly-up as investors bailed. Late in the year, major banks and financial firms downgraded coal investments across the board. In December, PacifiCorp, a major player in the Western energy market, cancelled all of its proposed coal developments, including a coal gasification plant in Wyoming, as company spokesmen bluntly concluded: “Coal projects are no longer viable.”

Cities for peace
Overshadowing the political “war” in Helena was the real war in Iraq. The new Democratic majorities in Congress, who campaigned on the promise to end Bush’s disaster, failed horribly, earning Congress the lowest approval ratings in recent history.

With no other outlet, Montanans turned to their local governments to “bring the troops home.” Helena and Missoula overwhelmingly passed peace referendums in November’s elections and were joined by similar resolutions adopted by the Butte-Silver Bow County Commission, the Hamilton City Commission, and in December, the Bozeman City Commission.

The Future
The new year brings a host of challenges to Montana’s political arena. Although the oil and gas boom has bouyed the state’s fiscal resources, the billion-dollar surplus of 2007 may not appear for an encore in 2009. Meanwhile, shock waves from the nation’s sub-prime mortgage meltdown reached Montana as local governments and school districts pulled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s investment pool.

Against it all looms the exponentially increasing impact from global warming, which threatens virtually every sector of the Montana economy, providing a daunting challenge to candidates, and promising a very lively political year to come.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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