Shine A Light 

George Ochenski wades through the dark talk in Helena-budget woes, energy issues, partisan bickering-to foreshadow the 2009 Legislature.

The 2009 legislative session started Jan. 5 and, from the looks of it, will be characterized primarily by fire and ice. The fire comes from the push for more coal-fired power plants and the inevitable heated clashes between the political parties. The budget, meanwhile, will be iced to compensate for plummeting revenues in the ongoing national economic collapse.

With more than 2,500 bill draft requests so far, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to do the right things for Montana’s future—and plenty of opportunities to do the wrong things, too. No one knows how it will all end after the scheduled 90 days of wrangling, but in the meantime, here’s a look at the players, the issues and the likely course of Montana’s 61st Legislature.

The Gov

Heading the list of “major players” for the session is Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has just been elected to his second and final term. Given his general popularity and substantial margin of victory over his Republican challenger in the recent election, Schweitzer should be aggressively moving his agenda during this legislative session.

But that’s not happening.

Instead, the governor has taken, in his own words, a “hands-off” approach. What this means is hard to explain, especially for someone in the state’s highest leadership position. For instance, although Schweitzer convened a Climate Change Advisory Council to suggest ways in which Montana can help slow global warming, the governor has not formally accepted the results—included in a November 2007 final report—and has so far not requested a single bill to actually implement those suggestions. That task has been left up to individual legislators.

What the governor has done is acknowledge that the free-spending ways of the 2007 session—enabled by a billion-dollar surplus at the time—are long gone. After initially calling for a “belt-tightening” session in 2009, the governor was forced to revise his original budget and submit a second, more stripped-down request that hopes to keep an emergency fund of about $280 million in the state coffers. But what may happen to the revenue picture between now and April remains a mystery. Many fear we may have to punch new holes in the belt to get it tight enough to fit the available dollars.

If Schweitzer’s lack of a legislative agenda is puzzling, some long-time political observers say it’s because the governor may not have planned on being around for the session. Given the amount of time Schweitzer spent on the East Coast in the last few years, his overwhelming focus on national energy problems and his rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August, more than a few people expected Montana’s governor to wind up in President Barack Obama’s administration. But that didn’t happen.

Regardless of his stated intentions to remain hands-off, Schweitzer still holds the pen with which any piece of legislation can be signed into law or meet its ultimate end with a veto. Given the makeup of the closely divided Legislature, there’s little chance either chamber could muster the necessary votes to override a veto. So, a little like the “man behind the curtain” in The Wizard of Oz, Schweitzer may try to be invisible, but will still be calling the final shots when all is said and done.

The House

While Democrats generally had an incredible year at the polls, Montana’s legislative elections turned out somewhat differently; voters decided to split their allegiances between the major parties, resulting in yet another 50–50 tie in the House of Representatives.

By law, when the House is evenly divided, the speaker of the House comes from the party of the governor. In this case, House members chose Rep. Bob Bergren, a Democrat from Havre, as their leader. Bergren is a retired firefighter and humanitarian—his family, for instance, puts on a free Thanksgiving feed in Havre every year for those in need. But while being
a nice guy is an admirable asset, Bergren has his work cut out for him as speaker.

For one thing, when the chamber is evenly divided, the committee chairs are also equally divided and, usually, so are the committee appointments. Bergren can round up his Demo committee chairs for strategy sessions, but half of those chairing committees, including important ones such as  Natural Resources and Taxation, will hold their strategy sessions in the office of House Minority Leader Scott Sales, R-Bozeman.

Montanans will best remember Sales as the speaker of the House during the disastrous 2007 Legislature, a session that featured the Republicans, with the narrowest one-vote majority, deciding to re-write the Schweitzer budget rather than take it as the governor submitted it. That ill-advised decision under Sales’ leadership resulted in a deadlock that
wasn’t resolved during the legislators’ regular 90-day session, outraged citizens, embarrassed serious legislators and made Republicans generally  look incompetent. That image was further enhanced by the antics of then-Majority Leader Mike Lange, R-Billings, whose profane outburst at session’s end was recorded, posted on YouTube and eventually led to his own party ousting him from his leadership position. If Sales hopes to restore some credibility to his party’s legislative efforts, he’ll have to do better this time around.

The governor’s budget, and all general appropriations bills, must begin in the House, so look to the Appropriations Committee and its sub-committees for the fiscal action. But given the bleak revenue picture facing the state, both sides of the aisle seem ready to acknowledge that new spending—even moderate new spending—is dubious this time around. That doesn’t mean there won’t be fireworks over where the available money goes, but, generally speaking, we are unlikely to see the kind of confrontation of last session.

As far as all of the non-appropriations bills are concerned, legislative leaders from both parties also agree that any bill coming out of the House will have to garner bipartisan support. Since committee memberships are evenly split, it is likely that most of the bills introduced will never make it to the House floor unless they appeal to the ideologies of both parties—or
are crucial to the state’s continued operation.

The Senate

In a complete reversal from last session, Republicans control the Senate this time around by a 27–24 majority. This may be another reason Schweitzer decided to take a hands-off approach to the session since the Senate will have the Legislature’s last word on most of the legislation and the budget.

While there’s been much talk of a calmer, more cooperative session, a closer look at the Senate’s Republican leaders may undercut that perception. Senate President Bob Story, a conservative Republican rancher from Park City, is lauded for his knowledge of the state’s taxation issues. Story served in the House from 1995 to 2002 before transitioning to the Senate and, therefore, is one of the few legislators left from before term limits were introduced.

Fellow senators describe Story as “pragmatic” in his approach to legislative matters, but his committee appointments reveal where that pragmatism is rooted. For instance, Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who has been a budget director for both Democratic and Republican governors, would have seemed a natural choice for the chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee—if bipartisan cooperation with Democrats was the goal. Instead, Story appointed Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, who is not only a staunch conservative, but is also a past president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, which has been locked in combat with Schweitzer for years. It wouldn’t be unexpected for Bales’ committee to treat spending bills with Democrat sponsors unkindly.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, carries similar baggage. A likeable, intelligent man, Peterson is another rancher who held the position of executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association for 10 years. Does this heavy stocking of the Senate leadership with conservatives and ranchers guarantee a feisty relationship with Schweitzer? Not necessarily, but it would be naïve to ignore the potential of another shoot-out at the Not-OK Corral come session’s end.

Facing this conservative tidal wave from across the aisle will be Democratic Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula. A savvy and hard-working legislator, Williams will have an uphill climb as the revenue picture darkens and a host of energy bills with negative environmental impacts come flooding out of Senate committees.

The Third House

Schweitzer keeps a tanned skunk hide in his office and has been known to flash it around for people while claiming to have “driven the skunks from the Capitol.” The “skunks” he’s referring to are the lobbyists that less-derogatory speakers often refer to as the Third House, since most legislators realize the important role lobbyists play in the legislative process.

While it is popular for some politicians to denigrate lobbyists, the reality is that citizen legislators, facing thousands of intricate bills on hundreds of extremely complex issues, soon realize that seeking answers and advice from lobbyists who know their subjects in detail is not just useful, but absolutely necessary. Moreover, for just about any argument made or position held by any given lobbyist, there’s another lobbyist out in the halls who will give the opposite side of the debate. So if a corporate lobbyist tells a legislator there will be no problems whatsoever with curtailing environmental regulations or public input to major energy projects, you can bet there will be an environmental, open government or public health lobbyist to provide information on exactly what problems are likely to arise from such a measure.

And finally, many of the hundreds of lobbyists in the halls of the Capitol every session are not really professional lobbyists at all. They are state, federal or local government employees who, because they are being paid for their time in front of committees and trying to influence the outcome of legislation, are required by law to register as lobbyists.

Below are the leading issues lobbyists and legislators alike will be keeping an eye on.

Issue 1: The Budget

Far and away the single biggest issue facing the 61st Legislature is the budget. Montana’s Constitution requires lawmakers to produce a balanced budget in which revenues match expenditures. That’s completely different than the federal process, which allows Congress to spend well beyond its means and off-load the debt to future generations.  Despite the often-harsh struggles required to do so, Montanans should be thankful for our balanced budget requirement.

Schweitzer submitted his original budget to the newly elected legislators in mid-November, as required by law, but only a month later took it back and cut it by $144 million. Unfortunately, those are likely to be merely the first reductions in the budget as fiscal analysts issue dire predictions for continuing revenue declines in the coming months.

What it means, in simplest terms, is that when the wrangling is done there are likely to be across-the-board reductions in state spending. When it comes to education, in particular, any reduction in the state’s share of the funding means local governments will be looking to pick up the slack from property taxes. But given the brutal effects of the recession on home and business owners, such moves may find tough going in the legislative arena. Look to the dozens of bill draft requests to “generally revise property taxes” to address the situation.

Issue 2: Energy

If the budget is the single biggest issue in the session, energy is a close second. For most of his first term in office, Schweitzer made the development of Montana’s energy resources his highest priority. But despite the governor’s mantra of “clean and green,” the reality of “clean coal” is a long ways off. The recession and concurrent strains it brings to the federal budget have contributed to an even more dubious future for “clean coal.” The billions that may have been available for research and development of “coal-to-liquids” projects are now likely to go to more pressing needs—like staving off millions of home foreclosures and bankruptcies. Add that to the collapse in the price of oil, which has lost two-thirds of its value since last year, and expensive substitutions for petroleum become even less likely to receive funding.

But while coal and energy development seem a doubtful outcome from this session, there are a pile of bills to promote conventional uses, such as coal-fired electrical generation.

When Anne Hedges, the policy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), recently looked at a sheaf of energy bill titles, she put her finger to her head while “dropping the hammer” with her thumb.

“There are a slew of bills—dozens and dozens—that try to prevent citizens from participating in the permitting process for large industrial facilities like coal-fired power plants,” says Hedges. “They don’t care about our right to participate, to go to court, or about our constitutional right to our clean and healthful environment. Some of them believe they, the Legislature, should be the only branch of government and citizens shouldn’t have the right to use the third branch of government—the judicial system. But when government doesn’t protect your right to a clean and healthful environment, the only things left are the courts.”

As an example, Hedges points out one bill draft request that she simply calls “the injunction bill,” which would prevent citizens from being able to ask the courts to stop projects while seeking judicial review.

“But they want to take that authority away by saying it can’t be done at all,” she says. “Once a facility is built, no judge is going to say ‘tear it down’ and then that’s it for clean water and clean air.”

Hedges says another bill, this one drafted by Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, “would prevent any challenge to agency decisions. So, there’s no impetus for agencies to engage the public or consider impacts on public health because no one would be able to look over their shoulder and see if they did a good job. On this one, I agree with former President Reagan—trust, but verify.”

The legislators requesting these bills, according to Hedges, are “trying to game the system in favor of large industrial polluters at the cost of citizen participation and public health.” She concludes: “These people are stuck in the dark ages—they refuse to accept that we’re moving forward as a nation toward a new energy economy. They’re stuck in the past and want to stay there, promoting large, polluting facilities over conservation and renewables.”

Hedges knows she’ll have her hands full this session but takes an upbeat approach.

“I believe the governor is committed to energy efficiency and that’s the number one priority for us,” she says. “We’re not writing anybody off when it comes to energy efficiency.”

Water Cooler Issues

The thousands of bills that come before the Legislature each session run the gamut from mind-numbingly boring to incredibly interesting. This session, a couple of efforts are sure to capture headlines and public attention.

One measure, dubbed the “Craft Brewery Liberation Act,” is reportedly being brought forth by three University of Montana law school students who, after significant study, decided to re-write Montana’s highly restrictive brewery laws. Combined with at least two other bills that seek to raise the legal alcohol limit for beers that can be sold within the state, there’s little doubt that Montanans, who love their craft beers, will follow this one closely.

Another issue sure to grab headlines deals with health care—or, more specifically, Montana’s Medical Marijuana Act. Voters approved the initiative four years ago by an overwhelming margin, allowing for the legal use of the drug for medicinal purposes.

Tom Daubert, executive director of Montana Patients and Families United, says medical marijuana could potentially provide relief to more than 21,000 Montanans who suffer chronic pain, but that not enough is being done to enforce the act. That’s why his organization, in cooperation with a number of other groups, is staging “Cannabis in the Capitol” on February 20.

The event includes a noon rally in support of marijuana policy reform and is intended to educate the public on the medicinal use of marijuana.

Live cannabis plants will be on display in the Capitol Rotunda along with booths depicting the challenges faced throughout the prescription process by patients and caregivers.

“Health care is a huge issue,” says Daubert, “and pain management is a huge and growing issue that is not going away.”

Daubert says the group’s legislative goals include expanding the list of conditions for which medicinal marijuana may be used by adding post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among others. The bill will also increase the number of plants that may be grown, reflecting the results of a Washington state study that’s now been incorporated into that state’s law.

“We’re realists,” Daubert says. “We have worked on this issue for years and understand that any bill with the word ‘marijuana’ in it invites controversy. But we believe that as time goes on more legislators will understand the benefits and ability to make patients’ lives better.”

Looking forward

A lot of the talk in Helena over the next three months will focus on the unenviable task of addressing monumental problems with scarce resources to help fund solutions. Through that gloomy outlook and the finger pointing that’s sure to follow, it’s easy to lose sight of how the state’s next generation of leaders are stepping up.

Consider Matt Elsaesser, at 26 the youngest member of the Helena City Commission, who firmly believes that “now is the time to make long-range plans.” Elsaesser, who founded and still heads The Student Advocates for Valuing the Environment Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to recycling, successfully led the effort to pass the state’s first gray water law last session. That bill allows citizens to re-use non-sewage domestic wastewater for landscape irrigation, thus reducing both water demand and relieving the burden on sewage treatment facilities.

This session, Elsaesser is back pushing for another visionary, proactive measure: an electric car bill that makes registering medium-speed plug-in vehicles, which are primarily for urban use, more affordable.

“We’re looking forward to passing effective bills to establish conservation in our everyday infrastructure,” he says. “We’d like to establish a new model for how households can save water and establish alternative transportation within our current infrastructure using technology that is widely available today.”

Elsaesser says he’s working closely with one of the legislature’s younger members, Sen. John Brueggeman, R-Polson, and is “very encouraged by how many young people I see up there from both sides of the aisle working to address the environmental challenges of our time. We need to step up now to get these things in place. Our strong push for conservation is not entirely realized yet, but we’re the ones who are going to have to do it.”

Elsaesser is just one example of those working hard in Helena. In most cases, citizens like Elsaesser and most of our legislators aren’t professional politicians, but our friends and neighbors, edged into the maelstrom of the legislative arena and doing their best to hammer out solutions to the pressing problems of our time. The best thing the rest of us can do is to track the issues and let our legislators know where we, their constituents, stand on any given issue. Thanks to the Internet, the methods for reading bills, tracking the session and contacting legislators are easier than ever (see sidebar, page 17).

And finally, although you aren’t likely to agree with all of their decisions, don’t forget to at least thank them for their dedication to the difficult process of making public policy. It won’t cost you a dime, but it will mean the world to legislators, who will spend months living on cocktail party chicken wings, to know their efforts are appreciated.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Read his weekly column on page 10, or contact Ochenski at
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