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Ochenski: Of prayer and politics

Down the dereg rabbit hole with Touch America

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The sordid tale of Montana’s deregulation debacle came to a tragic denouement last week with the bankruptcy of Touch America. As the final hundred employees in Butte received their e-mail termination notices, they must have been comforted to know that Gov. Martz was, in her own words, “praying for higher copper prices” so the Butte mines would open up again. The reality is that Martz and virtually every other Republican “leader” in this state refuse to acknowledge that their political actions speak louder than their prayers—and that those actions have created the very situations they desperately seek to reverse through divine intervention.

No place illustrates this better than Butte. The idea that deregulation of everything, including essential services like utilities, is good for business continues to be a basic tenet of the Republican Party. Here in Montana, that tenet was carried to completion by none other than Marc Racicot, who sat in the governor’s office during the 1990s when Republican legislative majorities hit their all-time highs. Thanks to Racicot, Martz, and the Repub legislative majorities, Montana has become the poster child for the disaster of utility deregulation, which was supposed to bring competition, lower prices and a booming economy.

High on their own political power, led by their golden boy Racicot, and with the votes to do anything they wanted, the Repubs charged ahead during the final weeks of the 1997 legislative session. Marching in lockstep with Montana Power Company’s (MPC) cadre of corporate lobbyists, these “visionary leaders” brushed aside naysayers who desperately tried to illustrate some basic flaws in their deregulation plan.

Starting with the totally obvious, opponents pointed out that serving Montana’s geographically massive utility sector requires a lot of expensive poles and wires and continuous maintenance resulting from our harsh climate. “What company in its right mind would find competing for so few customers with so much overhead attractive?” they asked. That we already produced twice as much electricity as we consume in Montana—and that we had the sixth lowest electricity rates in the nation prior to deregulation—were similarly sound arguments that deserved serious consideration. But in their ideological zeal, the Republican juggernaut chose to crush their political opponents instead of considering such obvious but inconvenient facts.

The bill was passed and proudly signed into law by Gov. Racicot, flanked by equally-proud Republican legislators, including bill sponsor Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville). While a phalanx of beaming corporate lobbyists looked on and clapped, their politician puppets reveled in the attainment of ideological nirvana.

Shortly thereafter, however, the reality of Republican dereg set in. The so-called “free market” was free indeed—free to be manipulated by energy giants such as Enron, who freely raped citizens and businesses with unconscionable rates and freely drained stockholders for all they were worth, while massively inflating CEO compensation. The mines at Butte shut down, citing wildly escalating “free market” electricity prices that rendered copper mining economically infeasible.

Meanwhile, MPC sold its entire energy holdings and dumped any feigned loyalty whatsoever to its namesake state—and to the people who, through their electricity and gas bills, had paid for every dime of the assets MPC liquidated. A new company, Touch America, was formed from the $1,000,000,000 those assets brought in. The company’s stock then tumbled from a high of $65 a share to mere pennies, culminating last week in the notorious bankruptcy and the e-mails informing loyal and hard-working employees they were out of a job.

If the story ended there, it would be just another in the long history of Montana’s corporate-sponsored tragedies. But the story doesn’t end there. The same paper that brought the news of the bankruptcy also announced another huge increase in utility rates. As the Public Service Commission ponders the “prudence” of free market power purchases, Montanans dig deeper in their already thin pockets to pay ever-higher rates for the electricity and gas they need to survive.

The same higher utility costs that are soaking residential users will also cripple businesses statewide, and some, perhaps many, will follow the Butte mines down the hole, simply unable to balance their marginal incomes with continuously rising utility costs.

Gov. Martz’ desperate prayers to the contrary, none of this has anything to do with religion—it is strictly the result of terrible policies put forth and passed into law by the Republican governors and legislative majorities of the last decade. God had nothing to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that were lost in corporate tax giveaways, the deregulation of basic necessities, or the massive environmental rollbacks that have taken place under our benighted Republican leaders. In fact, if God did have anything to say, it’s likely she would be righteously angered at what Martz and her corporate toadies are doing to this beautiful corner of creation.

A recent USA Today analysis of state taxing and spending policies puts Montana (tied with Mississippi) right at the bottom nationally, and blames the state’s fiscal managers, i.e., the governors and legislatures, for poor money management. The healthiest states, it should be noted, did not beggar their treasuries by indulging in idiot tax giveaways during the ’90s. Nor did they indulge in irresponsible spending, which USA Today estimates was 7.8 percent per year in Montana during the Racicot-Martz years.

Montanans need to face the fact that we can’t get ourselves out of this hole by continuing to dig deeper. Nor can we pray our way out. As a friend of mine said: “You can’t stand up for anything when you’re down on your knees.”

Gov. Martz may choose prayer as the solution to our woes. But truth be told, Martz and her cronies are responsible for our problems, not God. It’s time we separated prayer and politics, got off our knees, and stood up for our state, our kids and our future by electing better politicians. And to that, I say “Amen!”

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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