All over but the shouting in Helena

Senate President Jon Tester all but brought the final gavel down on the 2005 Montana Legislature when he told fractious Republicans: “If we get our work done, we’re gone. I’m not going to stay around and haggle over things. Sayonara.” Tester’s popularity no doubt went up with most Montanans, who would rather see their legislators back in their neighborhoods, working at their jobs, or home on their ranches instead of battling each other in Helena.

After four full months of long days, short nights and hectic schedules, legislators gave up living on fast food and chicken wings and turned their headlights toward home. For better or for worse (depending on your point of view), the 59th Legislature’s record of accomplishment is now history.

After a long and painful stint in the minority, this year the Democrats wound up in the driver’s seat, with control of the governor’s office, a Senate majority and a 50-50 split in the House. Montanans had obviously decided that 16 years of Republican governors and 12 years of legislative majorities had failed to deliver on Republican promises of making the state a better place to live. A pounding by skyrocketing power bills resulting from 1997’s ill-fated, Republican-driven deregulation of utilities gave many voters the pocketbook impetus to change their electoral preferences.

And so Montanans decided to turn the state over to the Democrats—giving them a chance to prove that they have learned something from past mistakes and are once again capable and trustworthy of steering our great state.

Ironically, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the man who picked a Republican to be his running mate, became the Democrats’ main draw. Perhaps because he didn’t come from the Demo party “bullpen,” Schweitzer barreled headlong into the session, full of ideas and “running on 220” as one wonk put it, with an agenda that was extremely aggressive for a first-term, first-session governor.

When the dust settled, lo and behold, big, gregarious Brian Schweitzer stepped forth in his blue jeans and boots, trusty Border collie at hand, and got damn near everything he wanted from the session. Moreover, much of what Schweitzer did, and the way he did it, restored Montanans’ pride in our state and faith in its leaders after four long years of embarrassment during Judy Martz’s scandal- and failure-plagued administration.

Country of origin labeling (COOL), for instance, gives Montanans what we all want—the opportunity to know where the agricultural products we buy were produced. It would be a rare Montanan who would trade good, clean grass-fed Montana beef for a hormone- and antibiotic-laced steer from a nameless Oklahoma feedlot. We take pride in what we do, we would just as soon support our fellow Montanans, and Schweitzer’s labeling bill gives us the chance to do just that. What’s not to like about Schweitzer bills to provide millions in scholarships to help Montana’s kids go to college, his efforts to make prescription drugs more affordable, to bring alternative energy to the state through windpower and ethanol, and to help small businesses insure their employees?

To be sure, not every Schweitzer initiative sailed through the session. His effort to close the significant tax loopholes primarily used by large corporations and out-of-staters made it out of the Senate, but failed in the House. His bill to tighten ethics rules and stop legislators from going through the so-called “revolving door” to become lobbyists never even made it out of the Senate (don’t be surprised if this one shows up on a ballot soon).

As “lead dog” on the Demo team, Schweitzer became the focus of Republican wrath and frustration at their precipitous fall from power. But as the session wore on—and the Schweitzer victories piled up—the tenure of the Republican complaints went from marginally credible to high-pitched whining to over-the-edge threats. House Republican floor leader Mike Lange, normally a fairly level-headed guy, told his caucus to “kick it in the governor’s face.” Meanwhile, fellow Repub leader Roy Brown went after Schweitzer for using his plane to fly a legislator back to Helena from her dying mother’s bedside.

The results from those two actions are a clear indication of how futile such threats and charges from the GOP have become: The bill Lange wanted to “kick” passed when a GOP representative bolted from the party line in favor of his constituents’ concerns, and the legislator whom Schweitzer flew back to Helena told the press no one forced her to return to Helena. “I had missed enough days to make it bother me,” Rep. Virginia Small-Eastman, D-Lodge Grass, said. “I thought he was good to me and my family.”

But while Schweitzer deserves praise for his successes, they couldn’t have happened without some tremendous help from the Demo leaders in the House and Senate. Senate President Tester steered his majority through a minefield of spending requests to hold the line on the budget—a significant accomplishment considering the long line of interests, from education to health care, that have been slashed by Repub majorities through the years of their domination.

House Demo Leader Dave Wanzenreid of Missoula, who was denied his rightful place as speaker of the House by Republican shenanigans at the beginning of the session, went on to rally his troops and hold the Demos together on their votes—which anyone familiar with Demo voting patterns can tell you was just about miraculous. That he did it without resorting to partisan extremism says a great deal about Wanzenreid’s ability and demeanor, and lays waste the accusations the Repubs used to justify their move to keep him from being speaker.

When all is said and done, Schweitzer and his Demos come out smelling like roses. Their Repub counterparts, however, came out looking like skunks, just out to raise a stink. If that image doesn’t change, Sen. Tester’s “sayonara” may go far beyond “good-bye” at session’s end.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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