Capital Eyes: Ship of State

The Montana Legislature sails onward through the fog

January 18, 2001

Like the ill-fated Titanic, the brand-new Montana Legislature continues to toss coal in the boilers as it steams into the fog. Unlike the Titanic, however, there is no single destination in mind, and the many hands on the tiller leave a weaving wake behind. Truth be told, there are also a lot more icebergs in Helena these days than there were in the cold North Atlantic that fateful night. The reality facing the stalwart souls in the House, Senate and Governor’s Office is not if, but when, we will crash into them. Everyone knows this. But we have no choice—the Legislature only has four months to do two years’ worth of work. So we steam onward—through the fog to be sure—but onward nonetheless.

One of the week’s major collisions involved Gov. Judy Martz and advocates for the American Heart Association, the Lung Association, the Cancer Prevention Society and Tobacco-Free Kids. Faced with a tough budget to balance, Martz, like so many governors before her, looks to snag whatever millions she can. In this case, it involves the millions from the settlement of the state’s tobacco suit negotiated by former attorney general, Joe Mazurek. Because the money is directly tied to death, injuries and sickness caused by tobacco products, the anti-smoking lobby expected the money to go to tobacco-use prevention efforts. They say about 20 percent of Montanans smoke, resulting in about 1,500 tobacco-related deaths a year, and the money should go to addressing those problems. Montana voters, too, saw the link when they voted last November to dedicate 40 percent of the settlement to a permanent trust fund. But the lion’s share, 60 percent, goes into the state’s General Fund, which can be spent for anything from schools to prisons—both of which, by the way, are howling for more millions than Martz has to give.

To be fair, the fiscal dilemma is not of Martz’s making—by virtue of being the new governor, she inherits the budget put together by the outgoing governor Marc Racicot. But Martz, in attempting to keep a “no new taxes” campaign pledge, is unwilling to institute Racicot’s proposed $25 million a year in new tobacco taxes—which leaves her at least $50 million short for the coming biennium’s budget. The Racicot budget allocated $7 million in the next two years for tobacco-use prevention efforts. But Martz thinks $1 million sounds better, with the other $6 million helping to balance the budget. If her heated, head-on collision with anti-smoking advocates is any indication, that’s probably what will happen.

Meanwhile, just to show you can never tell what “conservative” means these days, a “conservative” proposal to randomly drug-test all students involved in extracurricular activities drew its own fair share of heat this week. A Miles City High School student, and proponent for the bill, told the committee: “You are hanging over them. At any given time, they could be tested. You show them a consequence, and it keeps that in their minds.” Hard to argue that such a move would certainly induce a state of perpetual paranoia, but this student didn’t have to figure out how to pay for this classic case of conservative contradictions. While no one thinks drug use by high school students is prudent, neither is the concept of invading students’ privacy by subjecting them to random government drug tests without probable cause and due process—the very foundations of our legal system. Furthermore, the measure also requires significant spending on the part of already strapped school districts, money which could be spent on, say, more teachers or new computers. But the bill provides no new state money, making it what the conservatives rightly call “an unfunded mandate.” If the bill goes down, and it probably will, chalk it up to the prohibitive costs and a widespread opposition to Big Brother policies—not the unexplained, perhaps unexplainable, conservative ideological dichotomy.

The largest unavoidable iceberg looming in the mists remains the state’s energy supply. There is simply no way around this one, and some 60 bills are currently requested to address the electricity deregulation disaster enacted on Racicot’s watch. Surprisingly, many of those who backed deregulation in the first place refuse to acknowledge the problems the legislation has caused. Instead, they are recycling old “supply-side” economics last seen in the Reagan era, when the national debt ballooned into the trillions and James Watt ran roughshod over environmental protection. If these folks get their way, and there is every indication that they have the votes to do so, Montana can expect to see a new wave of electrical generation plants and power corridors riding on a host of bills to reduce environmental protections, “streamline” permitting, provide incentive tax breaks and, perhaps even use our one nest egg, the Coal Tax Trust Fund, to build new coal-fired power plants—the ultimate political irony.

Do you remember the scene in the movie Titanic when the hero goes to the very front of the ship, climbs up on the bow railing, throws his arms into the air and “flies” over the ocean? My advice, for those of us riding the Good Ship Montana, is to not be pulling a Leonardo DiCaprio any time soon—unless of course, you’re anxious to kiss an iceberg head-on at flank speed. On the other hand, such dire straits may, just may, force Democrats and Republicas to finally lay down their rhetorical clubs and begin working together just to keep our ship of state afloat.
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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