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Rick's redux

Former congressman returns to Montana politics

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At an age when many people are looking forward to leaving the hustle and bustle of a working life behind in favor of retirement, Montana's former Congressman Rick Hill is doing just the opposite. Confirming the rumors that have been swirling for some time, Hill, who will turn 64 in December, used the Republican romp of the recent election to announce this week that he is definitely running for governor in 2012.

It doesn't take a great memory to recall Hill's political activities here in Montana. He was leading the Republican Party when it took control of the Montana legislature in the early '90s. Back then, with Republican Marc Racicot in the governor's office and two-thirds Republican majorities in the Montana House and Senate, Hill and his wife Betty were almost fixtures in the Capitol. Betty worked the legislative sessions and Hill was part and parcel of what was then called the "Republican Revolution" spearheaded nationally by Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America."

Hill then went on to head the Workers' Compensation Board, touting his business experience as an insurance executive. His career culminated in 1996 when he was elected to the U.S. House. In 2000, Hill announced he would not seek another term due to serious medical problems with his eyes that literally made it nearly impossible for him to perform the duties of that office.

But now, thanks to an experimental eye medication, Hill says he can see well enough to drive his car, ride a motorcycle and, he hopes, fill the governor's seat. In fact, he says he's running for governor because he "has a vision for Montana and its future." But for those who remember the various outcomes of the 16 years when Republicans dominated Montana's political arena, his vision seems more like a throwback to the politics and policies of the past than new ways to deal with the many problems facing the state.

During his campaign announcement, Hill ticked off a list of his priorities should he win the gubernatorial bid. First, and no surprise, is "taking down the barriers to good-paying jobs." While that sounds reasonable in Republican-speak, what it means in reality is exactly what we experienced during the Racicot years. What Hill calls "barriers" are actually Montana's environmental protection laws and constitutional guarantee of a "clean and healthful environment."

Fifteen years ago the Republican-dominated legislature took down the "barriers" by gutting Montana's water quality and mine reclamation laws. Previously the state had operated under the principle of non-degradation for water pollution, but the Republicans rammed through bills with their huge majorities that allowed such practices as "mixing zones." What that means is businesses can pollute surface and ground water with industrial contaminants, only the measurement of the pollution isn't taken at the discharge point, but at some point downstream after they've been diluted by "mixing" with cleaner water.

The result is that more pollutants are allowed into Montana's streams and groundwater than before, which is already causing more problems for current and future generations. The perpetual water pollution at the confluence of the Jefferson and Boulder Rivers from the Golden Sunlight Mine's operations is a classic example. But since companies can get away with spending less money cleaning up their discharges, a "barrier" to good paying jobs has tumbled and the subsequent problems can now be foisted off on generations yet to come.

Or how about the famous debacle of utility deregulation? Prior to the Republican take-over of the Legislature and governor's office, Montana had a fully regulated utility structure that was vertically integrated. What that means is that Montana's primary utility, the Montana Power Company (MPC), owned the dams, coal-fired power plants, gas wells, transmission lines and pipelines. The utility's customers financed those assets and their maintenance while the company was guaranteed a decent rate of return on its operation and Montanans enjoyed the sixth lowest electrical rates in the nation.

In the late '90s, however, Governor Racicot embraced the "vision" of Texas Gov. George W. Bush to deregulate the utilities. The result was a disaster that continues to this day. MPC sold off its generation assets to Pennsylvania Power and Light and suddenly, Montanans were no longer in charge of their own future. Endlessly repeating the Republican mantra that competition will bring lower rates, the utility was dismembered, transformed into a telecommunication firm, and went defunct. Its stock plummeted, leaving Montanans who had invested in "their" company holding worthless paper and crashed pensions but providing millions in golden parachutes to company executives. Thanks to this great plan, Montanans now pay the highest electrical rates in the northwest region. Some vision, some outcome.

Hill's other priorities, like removing the "barriers," are equally amorphous. Take his pledge for "schools that work." How a governor can actually affect education, other than through funding, isn't clear. In fact, our constitution keeps universities independent from the other branches of government specifically to remove the threat of political manipulation from our education system.

Or how about his pledge to create "a government we can afford"? Given that Montana's per capita income continues to hover near the bottom of the national barrel, will we soon have a government that's likewise scraping the bottom? If so, who gets the ax, what agencies get gutted, and how does that affect our citizens? Unanswered questions abound, but campaign promises come easy.

And finally, Hill says he'll "protect Montana from an overreaching federal government." But while he's fighting "overreaching" will he keep his hands out of federal highway or military funds? Highly unlikely. It's more likely that laws such as the Endangered Species Act will be targeted, once again stealing from the future to enrich the new robber barons of today.

With two years to go before the election, Hill has plenty of time to explain his "vision." Montanans would be very prudent to demand that he do so—or risk being carried backwards into our future.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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