By the time you read this, the 2011 Legislature will have reached its halfway point, and the taillights, as they say, will be heading out of town. Montana legislators will have stuffed through a pile of last-minute bills to meet the transmittal deadline before heading home to their businesses, farms, ranches, family and friends. But they'll also be going back to face the voters. And this time around, it would behoove all Montanans to let their legislators know what they do or don't like about the session so far.
Judging from the hundreds of people who crammed the Capitol this week to protest the Legislature's actions on issues ranging from environmental degradation to public education, legislators are likely to get an earful. The Wisconsin revolution—in which tens of thousands of public employees, union members and their supporters have taken over their Capitol—may move west should the ears of those pushing the green buttons for a host of egregious measures remain plugged to the pleas of the populace.
In Wisconsin's showdown, a newly elected Republican governor, backed by Republican majorities, has declared war on one of the longest-held traditions in the history of American labor politics—the right to collectively bargain with state, local and federal governments to determine the pay, benefits and costs for any given workforce. But because Wisconsin's governor and legislative majorities turned a deaf ear—and even threatened to call out the National Guard on his own citizenry—the issue has turned confrontational, with Democratic legislators leaving the state entirely to deny the Republicans the quorum they need to vote on the controversial measures.
Could a similar situation happen here? Yep, it sure could. This session, by most accounts, is the worst in memory for a variety of reasons. The House has already passed a bill by Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, to repeal the citizen-passed initiative to allow the use of medical cannabis—ignoring the testimony of hundreds of fellow Montanans who praised the benefit of using cannabis medicinally for a wide variety of maladies. That recent polls show a significant majority of Montanans still support legalized medicinal cannabis—despite the constant drumbeat from the anti-cannabis crusade—likewise appears to have no effect on these self-righteous but factually challenged do-gooders.
Or how about last week's fiascos in which hundreds of Montanans who had traveled treacherous roads in winter weather to testify on bills were told they would not even be allowed to stand before committee podiums and put their names on record as opponents or proponents? To their credit, Democrats finally stood up and called foul, but like the citizens, their voices also went unheeded.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau summed up the situation succinctly this week when she told the cheering crowd of protesters: "There's a political circus going on inside that building and it's a circus that will last for generations." Juneau said the Republican majorities in the House and Senate were "introducing unconstitutional laws that make the state I love the laughing stock of the country." Juneau went on to hit exactly those themes that have set the Wisconsin legislature on fire. "They're making public employees punching bags. They're inside, slashing and burning MEPA [Montana Environmental Policy Act]. They're saying climate change is a good thing. They're gutting the Endangered Species Act. They're attempting to change the constitutional mandate for a clean and healthful environment."
Indeed, the runaway Republicans are doing that and more. Even Gov. Schweitzer, who has often criticized Congress and the federal government, is in shock at the dozen bills that selectively "nullify" certain federal laws. In an impromptu meeting with House Democrats this week, Schweitzer called the bills "un-American" and said they don't represent Montana values and make us look like we're harkening back to the days of the Civil War.
Even normally staid mainstream media editorial boards are starting to raise their eyebrows at the proceedings in Helena. I bet we're likely to see some pretty harsh criticism come this weekend, when legislators are back reading their hometown papers.
The problem is, nothing so far seems to affect the Republicans. Not testimony, not the flood of angry letters to editors, not legal advice from experts in Constitutional law and, surprisingly, not even fiscal notes that suggest some of their changes will do little but cost the state more money. Given that, should the second half of the session mirror the first, it's going to cost taxpayers a lot more money because the state will be in court continuously trying to uphold these inane laws from challenges that are likely to rain down from all sides. And speaking of circuses, what an act it will be to see Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, try to defend these indefensible laws.
But perhaps there is more in the air than just another Arctic cold front swooping down on Montana this weekend. Perhaps we will be inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Middle East that are tossing out dictators and corrupt politicians like trash. Or maybe the example set by the brave citizen takeover of the Wisconsin Capitol will ignite similar passions of Montanans to do the same. At this point, when the rights and wishes of Montanans are ignored in favor of narrowly drawn religious tenets, profit-driven corporations and outright secessionists, it just might be time to take it to the streets.
This weekend could make all the difference, depending on what reactions await legislators when they leave the rarified—some would say horribly polluted—atmosphere of the Capitol. Let's give them a half-time show to remember and remind them that they were elected to serve the people—and not the other way around.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.