Ochenski: The yap from the lap

Gov. Martz delivers a sad state of affairs

| January 23, 2003

In her first State of the State speech, Gov. Judy Martz was full of bluster and fury, newly come to power by defeating the fabulously wealthy campaign of Democrat candidate Mark O’Keefe. She had accomplished the seemingly impossible, rising to victory over a skilled opponent who outspent her by millions. At the end of that speech, Martz told a joke about the woman who dished out the chicken at the church dinners–and how, no matter the importance of the supplicant, she was “the lady in charge of the chicken.” But now, a mere two years later, there’s no meat left on the well-picked carcass—and it’s doubtful that Gov. Judy Martz is really “in charge” of much at all.

Perhaps it was the entrance that first gave away the significance of the rift between Martz and a Legislature dominated by her own Republican party. Normally, much pomp and circumstance accompany the appearance of the Governor, hand clasping, warm welcomes, continuous applause. But that didn’t happen. The grim reality is that Speaker of the House Doug Mood publicly blamed Martz for the Republican losses suffered in the last election, and those losses are something the once-powerful Republican majorities live with every day.

Or maybe it was the silence following the pregnant pauses throughout the speech—you know, those places where [applause] is typed in. But in this case, no one clapped. Of course, it’s hard to cheer for hollow posturings, no matter how much of a party faithful you are. The punch lines were not punchy, and the “solutions” offered by the Governor were vastly more rhetorical than real.

Oddly, the single largest applause in the speech came for the introduction of the trade representative from Taiwan, when the Governor lauded our “wonderful relationship” with that country. Maybe she was right—under the Martz vision of the future, pretty soon Montanans will be suffering in a polluted environment and competing with the Taiwanese to see who can work the longest hours at the lowest paying jobs in the world.

The Governor, who proclaimed herself “the Lapdog of Industry” a couple years back, claims it is necessary to “create a business environment” in Montana. For those with some historical perspective, allusions to creating a “business environment” are not new. Back in the ’80s, Gov. Schwinden whacked Montana’s coal severance tax in half to create a “window of opportunity” for coal companies, predicting the state would be rolling in the dough. Guess what? It didn’t work, and Schwinden went on to rip off every pot of money available, including the former Education Trust Fund, while trying to balance his budget. Schwinden’s attempts to improve the “business climate” were followed by those of Governors Stephens and Racicot, who gave away massive corporate tax cuts while gutting environmental regulations. Guess what? Those efforts didn’t work either.

Comes now Gov. Martz with her desire to create a “business environment” that steals nearly $100 million from the state’s Coal Trust, slaps a sales tax on Montanans under the guise of hooking tourists, and gives even more tax breaks to the wealthy. Emulating her idol President Bush, Martz’s plan to suck dollars from the middle class and concentrate it at the top is also highly unlikely to work.

The Governor made promises galore, but many are contradicted by the actions of her own administration. Calling our children “the future of this state,” Martz promised to produce a “tobacco-free high school graduating class by 2015.” The reality, of course, is that the Governor’s own budget would have significantly reduced funding for tobacco prevention and used millions of the tobacco settlement funds to balance the budget.

Or how about the promise to protect the environment? In her speech, Martz said “the health of our environment and our wildlife—these must come first.” But only moments later, she went on to support increased mining, logging, and coalbed methane extraction. Needless to say, the Governor did not get specific about how she was going to balance the impacts from these extractive industries with her pledge to put the environment “first.”

While lauding proposals to build new coal-fired power plants, Martz seems to have forgotten that Montana already produces twice as much electricity as it needs and omitted any mention of the monstrous pollution such plants produce—especially in the form of greenhouse gases that warm the planet, diminish our snowpack, and are now driving the state into its fifth consecutive year of extreme drought. Somehow, Martz just doesn’t get it that her vision of a “business environment” is not the same as maintaining and improving Montana’s single greatest asset—its natural environment.

What she did get right, however, was her announcement that she would support removal of the Milltown Dam, which she called “the right thing to do.” It is the right thing to do, of course, and is so widely supported by citizens and local governments that even this Governor, who has demonstrated almost no cognizance of the true, long-term costs of pollution, could not escape the obvious conclusion that Milltown Dam must go.

On health, human services and education, the Governor was rock heavy on promises, but feather-light on method. While Martz has been working on her speech on the second floor of the Capitol, hundreds of Montanans every day have been up on the third floor, testifying against health, human services, and education cuts. Again, the Governor seems incapable of understanding the connection between giving away the tax base to corporations and the dwindling revenues that are driving the cuts.

Perhaps her closing remarks give us the best insight into the fantasy world in which Martz now lives. Comparing herself to Lewis and Clark, the Governor said: “Two hundred years from now, we will be remembered for our dedication to this journey as well.” I hate to say it, but the speech was only last night, and I’m betting most Montanans who even bothered to watch or listen have already forgotten it.

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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