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To Helena and Back

A round-up of the Legislature’s not-so-Special Session


Republican plans to ram a huge tax break through last week’s special legislative session ran into a solid wall of opposition that started when Demo legislators, senior citizens, school administrators, teachers and labor groups rallied on the Capitol steps to trash both the process and the budget busting proposal. Speaker of the House John Mercer said the rallies only “slowed the session down,” but the reality is that statewide citizen opposition, and the resulting bad press, derailed the “Tax Break Express” which Republicans had hoped to ride to electoral victory in November.

Rep. Bob Raney, a 16-year legislative veteran and one of the point men for the Dems’ opposition, put it bluntly: “They came in with their bullshit plan to stuff it to the people. If they’d done what they wanted to, we’d be out $200 million, mostly going to the wealthy.” Raney says it was more of the same old tired Republican rhetoric: “The Republican majorities came into office on the promise to cut taxes and shrink government. But the record is clear: Government has grown exponentially under Republican leadership, our economy is in the tank and taxes continue to burden hard-working Montana families. More tax breaks for the rich were simply intolerable.”

What Really Caused the Tax Turnaround?

In spite of their fierce opposition, Democrat minorities didn’t have the votes to stop a single piece of legislation so long as Republicans wanted to push it through—as they did with some bad environmental bills. What really caused the Republican about-face was more about elections than social conscience. The two-thirds majorities Republicans have held in the House and Senate for most of the last decade had grown used to hiding behind Governor Racicot’s teflon press shield. But suddenly, it wasn’t working. Instead of being praised as our tax-relief saviors, headlines were blaring out from mainstream papers accusing the Repubs of locking the general public out of the session and stuffing through ill-conceived bills with little or no opportunity for public review or comment. Instead of reaping votes, it became clear to GOP leaders that they were taking it in the electoral shorts. When it was revealed that their lead bill would actually raise taxes on senior citizens (who vote in large numbers), they bailed.

Then came the turnaround. Instead of dishing out public pork to their rich buddies, Repubs grabbed the Demo platform of “children, homeowners and communities” and claimed it as their own. The new tax bill increased funding for schools, reduced property taxes for homeowners somewhat and provided a slight offset to local governments hard hit by previous tax changes. Then they funded the governor’s so-called “economic development” proposal, for which the session had originally been called. With the newfound Demo support, these bills sailed through, garnering huge bipartisan votes and prompting some to declare the session a “love-in.”

No “Love-In” for the Environment

While Republican majorities chameleoned on taxes, they kept their same old thorny hides for environmental issues. Dillon Republican Sen. Chuck Swysgood, ever the environmental Black Hat, brought a horrendous bill to thwart a district court decision that requires reclamation for open-pit mines. The 7 a.m. hearing before a “select committee” stacked with pro-mining Republicans was a farce for the few citizens who tried to testify. Many couldn’t even get copies of the bill prior to the hearing. As the Montana Environmental Information Center’s lobbyist Jeff Barber said, “The deal was done and the fix was in. Our testimony was both unwanted and ignored. This bill will give communities all over Montana an opportunity to have their very own Berkeley Pit.”

A hearing on a bill designed to head off a pending citizen initiative to ban game farms resulted in similar frustrations. John Smart, a concerned citizen who is well-versed in “alternative livestock” operations, said, “The committee simply ignored the serious issues raised by citizen testimony.” Smart also expressed disappointment with government agency personnel at the hearing. “They made no effort to improve the bill to protect the public’s wildlife,” said Smart of Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials. “They’re nothing but bureaucratic parasites feeding on sportsmen’s dollars while servicing the private interests of game farms.”

Both bills zipped through the legislature and await the Governor’s signature to become law. The game farm bill, which bans new licenses until a live test for Chronic Wasting Disease is found, may be successful in undercutting the citizen’s initiative. But many expect Swysgood’s open-pit bill to fail the first court test since it ignores the constitutional requirement that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.” As Adam McLane, long-time Montana Environmental Information Center staffer said after the session, “It’s fortunate they increased funding for schools. Now maybe some of these people can take a remedial course in reading the Constitution.”

George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985 primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. He works as a writer in Helena. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.

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