Considering Montana has had a 16-year succession of Republican governors, it’s no surprise that many people are anxious for Gov. Schweitzer to make some significant changes in policy toward a more progressive future. As Montana’s first governor to hold himself free of corporate “patronage” (since he refused to take their PAC money), Schweitzer is off to a good start. But before Schweitzer can really bust loose his “new day in Montana,” he has to clean up the mess left by that 16-year elephant parade—and believe me, the elephants have left plenty of droppings in their wake.
On the day Schweitzer finally took occupancy of the governor’s office, for instance, he got a little fiscal surprise left behind by his predecessor, Judy Martz. Running wild on their tax-breaks-for-the-rich-binge, the Republican-dominated 2003 Legislature passed a major reduction in high-level income taxes. Knowing that they couldn’t possibly balance their budget with the $100 million the tax breaks would give away, those clever elephants decided to make the bill effective the day after Martz left office.
In keeping with their habit of serving the desires of the wealthy with complete disregard for the future, Republicans left Schweitzer with the option of ignoring the inequitable giveaway or trying to change it in the Legislature—which is exactly what he did, considerably reducing the negative impact to the budget. Thus, one elephant mess was scooped from Montana’s path to the future.
Other droppings, however, are not so easy to scrape away, such as the school funding mess. While Repub leaders cry that Schweitzer and the Democrats “failed” in the Legislature because they didn’t immediately solve the complex issue, the reality is that the school funding situation is just another example of stepping in the droppings from the elephant parade.
Had Republicans properly funded education during their long tenure in power, the Supreme Court likely wouldn’t have ruled that current school funding does not adequately meet the constitutional requirement to provide a quality education for all Montana’s kids. What the Repubs are whining about now is a direct result of their own policies, although they would have the public believe the fault somehow lies with Schweitzer and the Democrats.
While the high-level issues have garnered the headlines, the reality is that the impacts of extended single-party rule are far more widespread than most folks think. For instance, Montana used to have a non-degradation policy toward the state’s water resources—which generally meant we had to honor our constitutional requirement that “the State and each citizen shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.” But that policy vanished in the mid-’90s under a tidal wave of raw Republican political power in collusion with the corporate desires of the extractive industries and their development allies. The result? We no longer aim for non-degradation of our water—we just juggle the numbers to make it seem like we’re “mitigating” impacts.
As for those who issue pollution permits, yet again Schweitzer is faced with the elephants in the room. For many state employees, the 16 years they have worked under Republican administrations constitute the majority of their careers. Obviously, those who have proved most skillful at implementing the Republican agenda have had the best chance of being promoted by their department directors, themselves the political appointees of a long line of Republican governors.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), for example, was headed for a decade by a former timber lobbyist under the Racicot and Martz regimes. Thanks to Schweitzer, that director has now gone back to his natural role of advocating for extractive industries as the lobbyist for the Coal Council. But those he raised to power remain in power—and the agenda they have been implementing all these years is certainly not Schweitzer’s agenda.
Take the example of the DNRC and multiply it by dozens of state agencies, divisions and bureaus—and all the regulations and programs they implement—and you have some idea of the tremendous challenges the elephants pose for this new governor. To his credit, Schweitzer has been actively working to change the public face, the legislative testimony, and the day-to-day practices of his agencies to pull the ship of state’s tiller away from the corporate hand that has so long held sway.
It would be one thing if our new governor only had to deal with Montana’s elephant parade, but the same single-party domination so familiar to Montanans—with the same disastrous results—is now occurring at the federal level. Bush, the Republican Congress, and their greedy corporate cronies are trampling their way across America, leaving mighty droppings in their wake.
The Bush administration has already created a national deficit in the trillions, spending more than a billion dollars a day on wars across the globe while polluting the planet at an atrocious rate. To pay for war, the federal government’s ability to take care of its own citizens is suffering. Medicare, Medicaid, social services, education and environmental protection budgets are being slashed, creating long-term problems that will bedevil future leaders long after Washington’s current elephant parade has followed Montana’s into historic infamy.
We’re lucky to have Schweitzer shoveling away at our elephant droppings, but sooner or later some future leader will have to do the same thing at the federal level. Which begs the question: Why can’t the elephant parade clean up after itself, just once, instead of foisting their droppings on future generations?
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.