The Physics of Government

Martz is about to learn how things really move in Helena

November 23, 2000

Governor-elect Judy Martz’s reaction to the Racicot budget, her recent cabinet appointments, and the new leadership of the House of Representatives may give Montanans a peek into a future very different from the Racicot Republican years—a future in which “true conservatives” attempt to remake state government to fit their own political ideology.

Some would say this is nothing new, since the Legislature has been dominated by conservative Republican majorities for much of the last decade. But Racicot, himself a lifelong bureaucrat, continually frustrated legislative efforts to trim government spending. In spite of his campaign promises to create a “more efficient, more effective government,” the state budget grew significantly throughout his administration, with huge increases in capital spending. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, these actions are the antithesis of conservative ideology on which the Republican majorities were elected.

But Judy Martz isn’t Marc Racicot. Her background as a solid waste operator in Butte gives her a very different outlook on both the collection and spending of tax dollars. Her new pick for budget director, termed-out senator Chuck Swysgood of Dillon, himself has a long voting record dating back to 1987. And that record is pure, hard-core conservative—fiscally and otherwise.

The irony of the situation is somewhat humorous. Here is a man who has run time and again on a platform to control, shrink, beat back, and eliminate bloated, unproductive and intrusive government. But now, he’s a government employee himself and in charge of the budgets for all state agencies. So what will he do? A true conservative would stick to the doctrine that “the best government is the least government”—which means cutting spending, trimming agencies, and putting the brakes to Racicot’s runaway capital construction binge. Martz and her new budget director have the appearance of true conservatives, but when push comes to shove, will they bend in the wind of political expediency, as Racicot always has?

Judging from Martz’s initial reaction to Racicot’s proposed tripling of the tobacco tax and the implementation of an amorphous “tourist tax,” it’s safe to say she is not inclined to impose new taxes to fund increased government spending. In this regard, she will find strong support from the new Speaker of the House, Rep. Dan McGee of Laurel. In his first statements to the press since his unanimous election, the very conservative McGee announced: “It does not matter if we say we’ll cut taxes if we continue to spend.” While we have all heard this rhetoric from Republicans before, this time they might actually follow through. But “cutting government” is a lot tougher than it sounds.

Let’s say, just for the sake of discussion, that Martz and her Band of True Conservatives actually get it together to propose some cuts. What will happen then?

The reality is that any attempts to enact change will have to contend with The Physics of Government, of which the First Law is: “A body in motion tends to stay in motion.”

The sheer size of the many and varied bureaucracies provides them with mass and inertia capable of steamrolling even minor efforts at change, let alone those that may threaten their very existence. “Cutting government” means eliminating positions and putting people with families and homes out of work. For their part, the agencies will not go gently—they will fight back. Which is where the Second Law comes in: “For every political action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” While Martz and company try to issue “expedited” permits to fuel their economic development efforts, there will be slowdowns, missed deadlines, complaints of low morale, and high turnover from disgruntled state workers. All too soon, “the customers” will start to howl. From mining companies to social and human service recipients, the cry for more and better “services” will be tossed in the face of efforts to trim the budget.

In the meantime, the hapless Democrats are likely to find themselves, once again, firmly rooted in the tax-and-spend characterization which has been their downfall for so long. It will be the Democrats who call for more spending on education, agencies and social services. Because of their constituencies, ranging from public employee unions to senior citizens to low-income advocates, they will have little choice. Racicot knew this and could always count on the D’s for their votes to fund state government. Augmented by even a fraction of the Republicans, he was able to pass his increased taxes, fees and spending proposals. Even better, he then claimed that the budgets were “bipartisan,” and dodged even marginal attribution for his non-conservative actions. Martz can count on the same support, should she seek to use it. If, however, she sticks to the true conservative ideology, she can count on fierce Democrat opposition.

Faced with these odds, it is a long shot that Martz and her Band of True Conservatives will be able to back up their ideological bluster with actions. But it is not impossible. The collision of a Racicot budget that relies on tax hikes with the rock wall of a “no-new-taxes, cut spending” conservative ideology promises to produce one of the most lively legislative sessions in a decade. Almost surely we will see the cuts proposed. But in the end, it will probably be the usual conservative victims that wind up getting the ax—environmental protection, reproductive and social freedoms, and tax relief for homeowners. Meanwhile, Martz and the True Conservatives, like so many before them, are likely to find out it’s a lot harder than they thought to truly change the direction of the ship of state.

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