Political Gifts 

A Christmas list for Montana's politicians

Reluctantly seated in Washington's political theater of the absurd this past week, Montana voters should jot one last note to old St. Nick before they storm the stage and burn the house. Just in time for the holiday season, here's a wish list to help Montana officials put the public interest back into the body politic.

For Governor Marc Racicot, a new set of spectacles to improve his perception of national priorities. Fresh from his political junket to Israel, Governor Racicot has hinted at, in that coy way of his, his interest in landing a national post, perhaps vice president or a cabinet position. Please, Santa, don't let him be Secretary of State.

In a goofy stab at global diplomacy, the Racicot Adminis-tration wants Montana to establish sister-state relations with Quangxi, China. Quangxi is an impoverished, semi-autonomous region (a classification shared with Tibet) that has little wherewithal to import Montana products. Of course, neither Quangxi nor Tibet have any autonomy from the thug regime in Beijing. Given China's abysmal human rights record, Montana should not reward it with sisterly embraces.

For elk rancher and former Montana Representative Bob Spoklie, of Kalispell, a restful retirement. Don't even bother going to Helena where legislators will consider a ban on canned elk "hunting." Spurred by sportsmen concerned about the ethics and image of hunting, radical states like Wyoming and Utah ban the practice of offering dudes a guaranteed trophy bull shot within a fenced enclosure. Montana hunters are urging the Montana legislature to do the same, which would quash Spoklie's proposed shooting pen near Whitefish.

For House Speaker John Mercer, (R-Polson), a kindergarten primer about how to play fair. Mercer, perhaps assisted by new staff assistant Paul Bankhead, refused to appoint newly elected Representative Paul Clark (D-Trout Creek) to any of the three committees he requested. According to Clark, he is the only legislator to be denied all of his committee requests. Coincidentally, perhaps, Clark defeated Republican Bankhead, the incumbent, by appealing to sportsmen in Sanders County. Clark's coveted spot on the Fish and Game Committee, meanwhile, went to three Missoula Democrats, at least one of whom who didn't request it.

For the Montana Legislature, the gumption to slow the uncontrolled spread of rural subdivisions and ranchettes across Montana's working landscapes. Although most of the 30-plus bills already being drafted for the upcoming legislative session seek to preserve agricultural lands, western Montana lawmakers also should heed the threat of forest conversion.

From Ennis to Libby, out-of-state timber companies are chopping up Montana's forested valley bottoms and foothills. The biggest threat is posed by Plum Creek Timber, which would convert 150,000 acres of forest lands for the "higher and better use" of rural residential development, including thousands of acres just west of Missoula. Collectively, these lands provide the state's most productive timber base, historic sportsman access, and critical wildlife winter range.

Amazingly, Montana taxpayers actually subsidize forest conversion for real estate development. Montana tax laws assess timberlands below their market value rate as an incentive to maintain the timber base. When forest owners sell to developers, taxes paid by new homeowners don't cover the cost of providing community services such as fire protection and schools. Existing taxpayers cover the difference. Meanwhile, timber companies, having pocketed the tax incentive for years, send windfall profits back to corporate headquarters.

One legislative proposal currently being drafted would end these taxpayer subsidies. Modeled after a law in Washington state, this bill would create a stick to go with the current carrot of low timberland taxation. When timberlands are sold for rural residential development, the seller would be liable for a 10-year look-back assessment based upon the actual market value of those lands.

For University of Montana President George Dennison, the sense of propriety to resign from the corporate board of Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber, and to UM's Board of Regents, the fortitude to insist on it. After 15 years of unsustainable logging, followed by conversion of low-elevation forests for residential development, Plum Creek has been using Montana profits to purchase timberlands in New England and the South. As a well-compensated co-author of Plum Creek's liquidation policies, Dr. Dennison says he serves the company on personal leave time, not on behalf of the university. So why does Plum Creek put Dennison's university title on their corporate brochures?

For Missoula City Council members considering a public smoking ban, a finely balanced set of scales to weigh public health against freedom of choice. My trusty old scale favors a ban in most workplaces but tilts toward personal freedom in bars, which already cater to legal vices. Since most people don't smoke, market forces gradually will favor non-smoking establishments. In Whitefish, where a similar ban has been proposed, the hottest up-and-coming bars both ban smoking. Once customers get "addicted" to a non-smoking environment, they rarely return to stinky bars. Smoking bars should be required to install smoke-sucking ventilation systems to protect employees. Otherwise, let the market decide.

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