Shooting blanks 

The worst-laid plans of D’s and R’s

An education consultant testified in the school funding lawsuit that his five-month study shows Montana schools are $300 million short of what is necessary to meet federal and state education standards. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst predicts the state is likely to be $230 million short on revenue in the next budget. Obviously, Montana has some big problems that demand and deserve significant, detailed attention. Unfortunately, when it comes to solutions, both political parties are shooting blanks.

When the news broke this week that Montana’s Democrats had come up with a plan for the state’s future, I, like many Montanans, thought it was about time. After all, it’s not like the Republicans can pound their chests over some great string of successes in governance. Quite the opposite, really, and as a new poll by the Chamber of Commerce found, it’s gotten so bad that the majority of Montanans now say they are dissatisfied with the state’s direction and leadership.

This is no big surprise to anyone except, perhaps, the ideologues in the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party who overlay their “vision” with thick, rose-colored glasses. From skyrocketing, budget-busting utility bills to trashing environmental laws to cutting education, health, and human services budgets, the Republican track record is dismal. But there’s one good thing for the Demos: the long list of Republican policy failures has produced endless opportunities to propose budget and policy alternatives that put the emphasis back on taking care of Montana’s citizens instead of lap-dogging to meet the whims of the state’s corporate masters.

So, when the Democrats announced their “plan,” I anxiously looked forward to reading the details. Yet, when the morning paper arrived, there was no story about the Demo plan on the front page, and nothing in the second section either. Instead, the article on the Demo “Economic Blueprint” showed up on the back page of the Sports section—which seems a strange place for political news that could well affect the future of the state.

After reading the “highlights” of the “blueprint,” it became obvious why the story didn’t make the front pages—because there’s nothing there but hot air and another thick helping of confusing political rhetoric.

Blueprints, for those who don’t know, are detailed drawings that allow someone to fabricate virtually anything based on the exact measurements, materials, and processes called for in the engineering design. Whether it’s a house or a Mars Rover, a blueprint is supposed to contain ALL the information one needs to build it.

Given the nearly total vacuum of actual details in the Demo “Economic Blueprint,” no one could possibly use it to fabricate anything—except, perhaps, a back-page story on the sorry state of Montana politics.

It would be funny were it not so tragic, but the Republicans are so out of touch with the reality of their own failures that they claim the Demos are copying them. Chuck Butler, Gov. Martz’ mouthpiece, called the Demo plan “a carbon-copy of the jobs and economic development program she campaigned on.” Senate President Bob Keenan (R-Bigfork) said: “I guess imitation is the ultimate flattery. It looks to me like they’ve put together the Democrats’ Republican Action Plan.”

If, in fact, the Demo “blueprint” copies the Republican “plans,” it begs the question: Why copy something that obviously hasn’t worked? The sad truth is that the Republican “Action Plan,” Martz’ “economic development program” and the Demo “blueprint” are all equally bogus. None of these so-called “plans” are much more than conceptual scratchings on the back of a napkin…which is exactly where they should have stayed until the details of an actual plan were developed.

It’s easy, watching our two major parties float their empty rhetorical balloons across the public screen, to see why Montanans are displeased with the direction in which the state is going. It is also easy to see why people are increasingly disenchanted with politicians and the political process. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Unknown to most people, Montana’s Capitol is filled with knowledgeable employees who have spent decades studying our state’s economy, tax structure, spending proclivities, programs, and agency adherence to statutory requirements. Montana’s taxpayers are funding these capable men and women every day, and they work for the Legislature, not the governor or either political party. Their research skills are top-notch, their professionalism unquestioned, and their work product rigidly non-partisan. Any holdover senator from either party can, at any time, drop in requests for research related to drafting legislation for the next legislative session. When those requests come in, the skilled researchers go to work.

If either party was serious about a “blueprint” or a “plan,” they would direct their efforts into developing the details to flesh out their concepts of where Montana should be going and how, exactly, it’s going to get there. When someone questioned them, they would have the non-partisan research to back up their assertions and the proposed legislation—with exact language—available for perusal by Montanans. All this could and should be happening far in advance of the elections, to say nothing of the next legislative session.

Obviously, that isn’t happening. For whatever reasons, both parties seem content to blame each other and run on vacuous “plans” rather than put in the work necessary to give Montanans the actual details of who they will tax, where they will spend, and what will be accomplished.

To their credit, the Demos say they will take their “blueprint” to the public and solicit feedback and ideas. Given the holes in their skeletal plan, it’s going to take a lot of both. The Repubs, on the other hand, say they won’t be releasing their “plan” until September, which gives the public virtually no opportunity for in-depth review of its veracity.

Both political parties should quit jiving Montanans and get to work developing real, detailed solutions for Montana’s many problems. Instead, they’re wasting our time shooting blanks—mostly at each other’s hot air balloons.
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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