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Ochenski: Time well served

On the birth of "compassionate conservative"

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Shane Hedges, Gov. Martz’s former campaign manager and chief policy advisor, just finished his six-month incarceration at a Helena prerelease facility for negligent homicide while driving drunk. The experience, which Hedges called “lonely and humiliating,” radically changed his view on state prison policies. He now believes treatment, instead of just punishment, makes better sense in the long run. In other words, this hard-core conservative just got a lot more compassionate. Some would say if it worked this well for Hedges, maybe we should incarcerate all Republicans for a little while to “soften them up.” But in all seriousness, what Hedges’ experience really points out is the difference between political theory and harsh reality in the public policy arena.

After leaving the pre-release center, Hedges told reporters he “used to believe that you lock them up and throw away the key. Now, I believe that is an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money, and it’s also an incredible waste of decent people who could become talented citizens…throwing a lot of money to put these guys in prison, thinking that we’re going to rehabilitate them…is making them more hard-core criminals and making them angry and bitter toward the cycle.” What they really need, says Hedges, is “an intensive treatment program where you’ve got people all the time treating them with respect and compassion and trying to help them overcome their problems.”

Hedges’ newly-humanized insights are important and may even receive consideration in future formulations of state prison policies. But more important is what he says about how he came to form these new opinions.

As Gov. Martz’ top policy advisor, Hedges got to tour prisons and other state institutions regularly. “I used to be one of these policy wonks who would go into the facility, walk through for one hour and think you know everything you need to know because you went on the tour. What you find out when you actually live there and get to know the people that work there and the people that live there is that these issues are a lot more complex and the stories are a lot more human than public policymakers often realize.” Bingo, Shane!

It seems incredible that Hedges, despite his youth and inexperience, could ever have thought a one-hour tour would teach him “everything you need to know” about the correctional system—or any other policy field, for that matter. Then again, considering the inexperience of Gov. Martz and most of her advisors in dealing with the complexities of governance and public policy, perhaps his arrogant naiveté is not so surprising after all.

The core of his revelation, how-ever, is the new understanding, gained through painful, firsthand experience, that there’s a lot more to public policy problems than rhetorical slogans. What comes to mind are such favorite theories as “family values,” “the free market,” “economic development,” and “private property rights.” You’ll no doubt recognize these clichés since the Republicans running Montana’s Legislature and governor’s office for the last decade repeat them endlessly. Unfortunately, like Hedges’ earlier view of “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” these simplistic political theories have failed to deliver solutions.

“The free market” is the foundation upon which political ideologues built their theories for electricity deregulation. And what happened? We got a free market alright—free to allow manipulations of the electricity supply by greedy profiteers so prices could rise right out of reach, crippling or closing many Montana businesses.

“Family values,” of course, is highly dependent on what kind of family you might have. Same-sex partners raising a child? Well, let’s not complicate the theoretical simplicity with those kinds of values.

Then there’s “economic development.” Again, political ideologues decided the way to bolster economic development was to provide “a better business climate.” And how did they change that climate? Simple : They gutted regulations that protect our environment and instituted massive tax giveaways to large corporations. If their theories worked, Montanans would be rolling in clover. Instead, we continue to drag around at the bottom of the economic barrel, working the most jobs for the least amount of pay in the nation.

As a sick bonus to this failure, we also get a trashed environment. As most of us know—and especially those living downwind or downstream of large industrial facilities—the “private property rights” of polluting industries seem to have taken significant precedence over the private property rights of those who might want to breathe clean air, and fish in, swim in, or drink clean water.

Plus, giving all those tax breaks means someone, somewhere, has to pick up the tab. That someone, since it’s clearly not the big guys, is you. Our current budget dilemma is a great example of what happens when political theory runs headlong into reality. We gave away the revenue, the economic development didn’t happen, and now we’re in a budget crisis and the governor wants to implement a general sales tax disguised as a “tourist tax.”

But those areas of the state that are truly tourist destinations, like West Yellowstone, Big Sky, and Whitefish, have already instituted a resort tax on most items. Likewise, the Bed Tax is supposed to catch the tourists whenever they rent a room or camp out in state parks. Would the Martz tax go on top of those? And would it catch tourists or just good old Montanans? Should these new tax efforts fail, which they almost surely will, the budget ax will then have to fall—and it looks like the citizens (think human services and education) will take it in the shorts yet again.

Like Hedges said, “These issues are a lot more complex and the stories are a lot more human than public policymakers often realize.” Wouldn’t it be great if other conservatives considered the spectacular failure of their prevailing policies, admitted they were wrong, became more compassionate by concentrating on the human side of the equation, and moved Montana somewhere besides further down this dead-end street?

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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