By the time this hits print, Montana’s legislators will be waking up in their own beds for the first time in months. Their brief return home for a halftime break in the session will also give them the chance to run into their constituents at the local diners and grocery stores where, most likely, those constituents will scratch their heads and ask, “What the hell is happening in Helena?” They’ll ask because most of Montana is remote from Helena—and what they’ve been getting in the news paints a very puzzling picture of just what’s going on at the 2007 legislative session.
The move by House Republicans to break up the major budget bill into six individual bills has been spattered across the news and op-ed pages for weeks and has provided almost endless fodder for pundits. Gov. Schweitzer has been brutal in his denigration of the tactic, while Republican leaders have been painfully shallow in their explanations of how breaking the one big bill into many small pieces will benefit the state, its citizens, or the legislative process.
What hasn’t happened is what the Legislature is supposed to be all about—which is negotiation. Every session the Rs and Ds (and now the Constitution Party, too) come to Helena and slug it out for their respective ideas on where Montana should go and how we should get there. All the old saws get dragged out again and the aisles run with the blood of heated debate as one side points fingers at the other while threatening various kinds of retribution. In the end, however, most of the quirky and weird stuff gets killed and, through the process of tough negotiation, the necessary stuff gets passed into law.
The labels that define the respective political parties have again been trotted out this session, but a closer look at the legislation being forwarded by those parties—and the votes on that legislation—definitely blurs the lines.
Take, for instance, HB 405, the bill being sponsored by House Republican Majority Leader Mike Lange that will basically exempt all energy projects and their affiliated systems from environmental analysis and the public review requirements of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
Although the bill was opposed by the Schweitzer administration, what it really exemplifies is the unintended consequences of Gov. Schweitzer’s own campaign to drastically expand the use of Montana’s coal resources for export power. When the governor says he is promoting “clean” coal development, all the Republicans hear is “coal development.” And the way the Republicans have historically approached resource development is to tear down what they call environmental or regulatory barriers so corporate interests are cut loose to go full speed ahead.
But whoa—in spite of Lange’s bill being harshly denounced by the Dems, guess what happened? Good old Jimmy Keane, the representative from Butte who infamously voted with the Republicans to overthrow the Dems preferred choice for Speaker of the House last session, is back with another catastrophe. This time, it’s his HB 610, which redefines MEPA, the state’s foundational environmental law, to specifically state that environmental analysis for any proposed development is for planning purposes only. This horrendously bad idea also strikes at the public’s ability to challenge the actions of a state agency and removes judicial authority over such matters. Think the Repubs have their heads in the sand on environmental destruction? They’ve got nothing on Jimmy Keane.
The bad news is that both bills will likely clear the House—and Keane’s bill has votes from a number of Democrats, literally destroying any credibility they may have had to stand as the party of environmental protection or point fingers at Republicans as corporate lapdogs. In the meantime, both bills wind up putting the Schweitzer administration in a very tough position to continue promoting coal development when the ability to simply legislate away any environmental protection is so blatantly obvious.
Or how about this one? The Schweitzer administration’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks decided to shift funding for the Future Fisheries Improvement Act, the state’s premier river restoration program, from license fees to interest from the Resource Indemnity Trust Fund (RIT). The program has been praised as a national model, with the restoration of the Upper Blackfoot as its poster child. But, mysteriously, this agency, under a Democrat governor, decides to switch the funding source.
And guess what happened? The House introduced HB 116, which completely changes the way the Resource Indemnity Trust Fund interest can be used. It also eliminates the funding for Future Fisheries, leaving the river restoration program unfunded. The bad news? The vote coming out of the House was 97-2, which means Democrats voted en masse to defund a successful river restoration program right when our rivers need it most.
Some will say the 2007 legislature is merely the product of term limits come to full fruition, as experienced legislators with long-term institutional knowledge of the budget, the agencies, and the process have been replaced by those new to the highly complex business of making state policies and divvying up the dollars to fund them. And they would be right. Without that long-term, in-depth knowledge, what we are seeing is far too many party-line votes for political purposes in lieu of honest and respectful negotiation.
But hey, we now have a chance to talk to those we send to the Legislature while they’re home over this little break, and perhaps jar them back to reality. The reality is that the Legislature and the governor are supposed to be working for the good of the people of Montana—not for the amorphous interests of their political parties.
Again: most Montanans live in places remote from Helena. Now would be a very good time to remind your legislators of what’s important to you—and exercise a little “remote control” over what’s turning out to be a very whacky session.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.