By the time you read this, Montana’s legislators will be a day away from taking their mid-session break after 45 very long, very tough days in the Capitol. The Republican-dominated Legislature and new governor came to town with a full head of ideological steam, but now they are trembling in uncertainty at the magnitude of the problems facing the state. And tremble they should—as should we all. As they drag tail out of Helena, many legislators are sick from the waves of variant flu strains that have found easy pickings on those who work 16 hours a day and live on chicken wings. But sick or well, most of the legislators who leave town tomorrow will go home shell-shocked. Republicans are rocked by the total failure of their free-market economic theories while Democrats are reeling from the resulting budgetary collapse that threatens everything from social programs to education.
As they head back to face their constituents, there are no apparent winners at halftime. When asked who will get what, legislators won’t be able to respond with any degree of certainty, since the condition of the state’s bank account remains unknown. For those seeking more money for education—there is none. Maybe less. Same for the growing segment of the population that finds itself in mental duress and in need of care. Same for the mounting numbers of the unemployed as runaway electricity costs shut down Montana’s industrial sector. To those hoping for continuing tax breaks—there are none in sight, maybe increases.
Meanwhile, blaming the environment has become the scapegoat du jour, as key environmental laws are weakened without justification. The Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Major Facility Siting Act are being corrupted with absolutely no proof that trashing these laws will produce so much as one new job or one new dollar for the state. And of course, the rampage against environmental protections fuels a predictable backlash by a significant sector of both the Legislature and the general population who hold clean air, clean water, healthy fisheries and abundant wildlife as key reasons to live in Montana. The environmental wars, which some pundits had erroneously declared over, are back on with a vengeance.
With the Legislature half over and the members of her industry-dominated energy advisory group at each other’s throats, the governor has finally acknowledged the severity of the energy policy situation and admitted that it may ultimately require the use of condemnation—taking back public resources for the public need—to find a solution to the crisis of affordable energy for Montana. In this respect, Martz is ahead of her Republican legislative counterparts, who still can’t bring themselves to admit the deregulation mistake and continue to spout free-market economic theories. Unfortunately for us, “theories” is the operative word, with Montanans paying the price as the free market test cases. Will we survive the test? Not a good question to ask in Butte right now, or Columbia Falls, or to the university system. The solutions to date do not solve the problems for anyone—not for the energy suppliers, not for the energy-using industries and certainly not for normal old Montanans.
Beaten and tired, the legislators will head home hoping for some rest. Home to the vast diversity of space and opinion that characterize the Big Sky state, and there they will have to look Montanans in the eyes and tell them the truth. Defenders of the constitutional guarantee of a clean and healthful environment will have to acknowledge that we may well lose that inalienable right this session. Business advocates will have to tell their local chambers there are no tax breaks on the foreseeable skyline and admit that higher energy prices seem a certainty. Constituents from all sides will shake their heads and wonder how Montana got in such a mess and from which there seems no escape.
It will be natural for them to blame the Legislature and governor. In many cases, such as the attack on environmental protections, they deserve the blame. But truth be told, it is only partly the fault of the people coming home from Helena and the lady in the Governor’s Office. They have inherited the bad decisions of the past and now find themselves struggling with the exigencies of an uncertain future. Many of them are brand new at making public policy and are finding the broad rhetorical answers of the campaign trail insufficient to solve the specifics of the quandaries facing the state. One thing is certain, the high of partisan victories has definitely given way to a counting of the fallen and wounded along the path—and concern over future casualties.
The best thing citizens can do for legislators over this mid-term break is to let them know how you feel. Whether it’s school funding, environmental protection or concern over energy prices, make a point of getting in a call or e-mail to your legislator before they return to work next week. Now that some of the new people have a better understanding of the fundamental issues facing the state, they will appreciate the feedback and direction. If your legislator has done something good, be sure to tell them thanks. If, on the other hand, you’re not pleased with their actions, don’t be shy about holding them accountable. They’re only home for a week, so don’t hesitate. And no matter how angry you may be over the actions of the 2001 Legislature—which more and more Montanans are becoming every day—try your best to be civil and remember that these people are deep in shock as they watch Montana collapse around them.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.