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Bare-Knuckle Politics

Conflicts, complaints, and cash turn up the heat in Helena


Any pretense of bipartisan cooperation is long gone from the legislative chambers, and now, in the closing weeks, it’s down to bare-knuckle politics. In a street-fight of a session where everyone is cut and bleeding, it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, is winning. As Democrats and Republicans go at each other, the biting, eye-gouging, deal-making and back-stabbing are reaching a crescendo. One thing is sure: Everybody on both sides of the aisle and in the halls is looking forward to the end of what many have called the meanest session in memory. Out there in citizen-land, here’s fair warning—brace yourself for the tidal wave of political rhetoric about to crash upon you as the 2001 Legislature, frustrated with the present and fearful for the future, comes blundering to its finale.

Why, you might ask, has what is supposed to be the deliberative process of developing laws and budgeting money devolved into gang warfare? Actions of the last week speak louder than words. After a session-long lament by the Republican majorities and the Governor’s Office about a fiscal shortfall for schools, tobacco prevention, colleges, health and social programs, last week $17 million suddenly appeared in the revenue projection. If Republicans were as fiscally conservative as they have made themselves out to be, that money would be headed lock, stock and barrel into the state’s ending fund balance. Everyone knows the ending fund balance is razor thin and everyone expects that the state will be facing unexpected costs in the very near future—from firefighting to further deregulation impacts. Hardly coincidentally, just after the new money was discovered, out popped the economic development bill that requires about a million bucks to move a bunch of people into the Governor’s Office and establish a special Washington office. Demos are calling it the retirement plan for a certain former congressman that will pay Montana’s “Washington contact” about seven times what the average Montanan makes.

In a more mano-a-mano scene, 20 House Democrats have lodged a formal complaint against a fellow legislator contending that he is carrying legislation that will benefit his self-interest—specifically by encouraging coal bed methane wells on and around lands that he owns. Rep. Keith Bales (R-Otter) admits he owns thousands of acres in coal-bed methane country, but claims he’s just carrying the legislation to protect his neighbors and keep Montana from losing methane to wells in neighboring Wyoming. Who’s right? The Rules and Ethics Committee will decide in the coming days.

On education funding options, House Repubs dashed Demo hopes last week by killing the Senate’s bill to raise the Bed Tax to 9 percent and stick a new tax on rental cars. In an emotional floor fight, Minority Leader Kim Gillan (D-Billings) accused Speaker of the House Dan McGee (R-Laurel) of breaking a quid-pro-quo deal they had to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor for debate. While McGee denies the charge, one might wonder why legislation is passed or killed by backroom deal-making instead of on its merits in open, public debate. Regardless of who is “right,” the incident is reflective of the general state of affairs between the House leaders and their parties.

Meanwhile, the state’s $5.6 billion, two-year budget will get decided by a handful of people in the next few days. A six-person Conference Committee will stack up the expenditures next to the revenues and balance the two. Old hands know that in the budget end-game, much mischief can occur—from mysterious incursions of funny money for expanding revenue estimates to slashing millions in sudden, late-night committee meetings. Then the governor gets her cut at it through amendatory veto power. If everything goes as expected, Martz and the Republican legislative majorities will quickly reach agreement and leave town while the Democrats fume and rage to whoever will listen.

In truth, neither side will have much to call victory, and they know it. Montana’s future is fraught with peril. The looming drought portends another long, expensive fire season while competing interests fight for the dwindling water resources. The problem of finding affordable electricity as a result of Montana’s disastrous deregulation experiment is still far from being solved and the most likely bill to come out of the session is merely an extension of regulatory authority—and even that is certain to be challenged in court. The rolling, compounding costs from skyrocketing utility prices are already hurting Montana’s families and businesses. But according to the experts, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Faced with such daunting challenges, now perhaps more than ever we need the best minds from all the political parties working together for the good of Montana and its citizens. But that’s just the opposite of what’s happening. Maybe it’s a result of term limits that legislators who could take a long view—and hold long responsibility for their actions—are simply gone for good. Gone with them is the institutional knowledge of how the agencies work, of how to govern, and the surety that there is always another side to every coin, that one day the worm will always turn. In place of the lost knowledge, we have legislators who know only that in three terms, at the max, they will be done. So they get in hard and fast, throw their weight around “cutting deals” and muscle the minority with the tyranny of the majority. No matter what the cause, however, it’s bare-knuckle politics in Montana’s political arena these days and that’s likely to continue long after the session grinds to a halt. Unfortunately for Montanans, as anyone who has ever been in a bare-knuckle brawl knows, everybody—including the winners—winds up getting hurt.

George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.

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