If the rumors are true, Montana's Republicans were completely stunned by the size of their electoral victories last November. Suddenly they had a 68-32 majority in the House of Representatives, far beyond what either party predicted. Democrats had actually thought they were going to take control of the House while Republicans hoped to gain five seats. Now, the lack of actual planning for Republican majorities in the House and Senate is becoming painfully clear. Bill by bill, the GOP and its Tea Party pals continue to jump off the deep end with unbelievably bad legislation.
It's hard to know where to start. There are so many inane measures popping up as the session's mid-point approaches and with it the deadline for transmitting general bills from the chamber of origin to the second house. Given the backlog of bills that have yet to be introduced—let alone heard in committee, voted upon and sent to the floor for debate—there's reason to hope the clock will simply run out. Unfortunately, while a host of truly important issues for Montana's future are ignored, the majority party is wasting time and energy on measures that are unconstitutional and ineffectual.
Take, for instance, the proposal by Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, to establish a "home guard." House Bill 278 would allow citizens to form their own mini-militias and arm them. Now some folks would say, "Well, we already have the National Guard," and wonder why we would need additional "firepower" on the home front. Are we that worried that the military isn't enough and we now need an informal paramilitary, too? And who would these theoretical citizen-soldiers be shooting? Canadians swarming over the border for a beer on Sundays—or would it be fellow Montanans?
Or how about the cluster of bills to discourage further development of renewable energy sources? Even Gov. Schweitzer, who sideslipped from "clean and green" to "all forms of energy development" in the last six years, is having a tough time gulping down some of these measures. As Kyla Weins, energy lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, asked: "Why would anyone oppose putting up solar panels on someone's home so they can sell excess electricity back to the power company at cost which the utility can then re-sell for a profit?" Good question, and one these purported supporters of the free market might want to answer truthfully one of these days.
Of course there's also the big debate over the horrors of medical marijuana. My goodness, what a threat to our civilization people growing their own medicine has become. Yet, the initiative by which medical marijuana was legalized garnered more votes than any politician or issue on the ballot when it was passed. That's called "vox populi"—the voice of the people—but for some reason, the new Republican majorities think they know better.
And so, even though there are more than 27,000 Montanans who have gone through the legally prescribed steps to obtain the right to use marijuana medicinally, none other than House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, decided that the only solution to the issue is to repeal the measure entirely. Forget that even the folks who supported the original initiative have fully endorsed changes to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Forget that prescription painkillers are, according to Attorney General Steve Bullock, a huge and growing plague in Montana. Forget making conscientious changes to the law—just repeal it and "start over" is the Republican answer.
Does anyone out there remember the Tea Party and Republican campaign promises to "get government off our backs"? How does that comport with bills that put government in our bedrooms, hospital rooms and bodies? Take the measure requiring that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy must first have an ultra-sound image taken prior to abortion? Or that the measure initially made it a felony with up to 10 years in prison for any health care provider who refused to do so. (Thanks to an amendment, now it's only a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.)
When it comes to the environment, you'd have to believe that pollution is partisan to figure out why Republicans think gutting environmental regulation, citizen involvement and judicial review is a good thing.
When the plume of industrially polluted water comes down-gradient to wells thanks to the "streamlined" permits issued to the upstream mine, mill or factory, Republicans must assume it will go around their wells and only pollute the water of those whining liberals. Right...very far right.
The idiocy—and there's no other word for it—seems endless. The tragedy is that it wasn't always like this. Back when Republicans ruled Montana and controlled the House, Senate and Governor's Office, we saw some horrendous measures such as electricity deregulation enacted. But in those pre-term limit days, apparently there were still some Republicans with enough public policy experience to understand that what goes around comes around. Compared to the new batch of inexperienced and unknowledgeable Republican and Tea Party legislators, the old-style Republicans would now be defined as moderates or maybe even RINOS—Republicans in Name Only—because they occasionally supported such things as libraries and education.
It's frustrating to watch the session tick away with so little progress made on the issues that really count while the bills, quotes and votes spin ever further into radical, surreal fringe ideology.
Montanans deserve better. Anyone with any experience knows Montana's political pendulum swings back and forth from Democratic to Republican control to 50-50 splits. To treat the future as if we were all extreme right-wingers isn't just wrong, it's insulting. But heads up, radical Republicans and Tea Partiers. Montanans have long memories. The next election will be here before you know it—and the pendulum will surely swing again.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.