A fighting chance

Montana Democrats raise their voices for the first time in a decade



Imagine a game show in hell. It’s hot, there’s the malodor of brimstone, there’s even a diabolically unpopular host. Poor contestants buzz in but, right or wrong, they can only lose money. In the end, they go home destitute, dejected and demoralized.

The analogy parallels the lives of many Montanans affected by the massive social service budget cuts the state has undertaken and will continue to undertake when the 2003 legislative session begins next week. Facing a budget shortfall of some $250 million, which Gov. Martz has described as the worst budget crisis in 16 years, the administration has already released a preliminary budget that eliminates 70 percent of present funds for a program providing therapy and prescriptions for mental health patients. This is just a single example in a string of daunting statistics the mind has trouble comprehending, but the bottom line is that Montanans who depend on subsidized child care, safe foster homes, kidney dialysis and a raft of other services may have to go without.

With the Governor’s no new taxes pledge, many Montanans’ only hope is that the Republican-controlled Legislature figures out a way to raise enough revenue to take these services off the chopping block. A decade ago, it would have been next to impossible, but in November, the Democrats gained ground in both the House and Senate. Democrats, who haven’t held control of either house since the 1993 session, picked up seven formerly GOP seats this year, shrinking the Republican edge in the House from 57-42 (with one independent) to 53-47, and whittling the GOP majority in the Senate from 31-19 to 29-21.

Not quite the revolution Democrats had hoped for, but enough—in conjunction with a group of moderate Republicans—to make the possibility of raising revenue a real one. But hard luck Montanans aren’t out of the woods yet. To change the channel from hell to heaven, or even to purgatory, Democrats will need to find statesmen who can effectively court the GOP’s moderates, hold their own votes together, and confront the Dems’ perennial challenge: connecting the dots between tax hikes and the people who need the services the hikes are intended to pay for—services that in many cases keep, or won’t keep, people fed and sane and living.

Man with the plan

Sitting in a Missoula coffee shop, Dave Wanzenried, the House Minority Leader and local Democratic Representative, sips organic orange juice and explains why it’s going to be so hard to avoid cutting funds from social service programs.

“Think about this,” he says, looking around at the students and young professionals with their lattes and cinnamon rolls. “If we cut all these things right now, most of the people in here, it might not effect their lives at all.”

Some have suggested that Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) budget cuts will effect one in five Montanans, yet it’s hard to picture that swimming in a sea of North Face jackets and Dansko clogs. “If you walk into a nice downtown restaurant and shout ‘Hey, we’re going to cut 50 million dollars out of mental health,’ some people might say, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to do that. Hey, by the way honey, we’ve got a golf date tomorrow,’” says Wanzenried. “It just won’t have an impact on them, so one of the things we have to do is get Montanans’ attention and make a connection between these cuts and the communities that they live in.” Not an easy task, but one that Wanzenried thinks is achievable. With the Governor’s low approval rating, and her plan to raid the Coal Tax Trust for $93 million “dead on arrival” according to both Republican and Democrat lawmakers, the power and the pressure lies in the Legislature. But Wanzenried has to find ways to leverage his minority party’s power.

“The political landscape in this state has changed in the last two years,” he says, wiping cookie crumbs from the table. “The Democratic minority in the house really wasn’t on the map last time, because in order for us to do something we’d have to change nine votes on the Republican side and hold all of ours together. It didn’t happen very often.”

House Republicans, who enjoyed lopsided margins in the last decade, have seen them whittled down to much more modest advantage. Even Senate President Bob Keenan (R-Big Fork), the ranking Republican senator, has noticed that his party doesn’t have “the numbers to just run our game,” acknowledging that the two parties will have to work together more than they did last session. “Now we’re on the map,” says Wanzenried. “We still have to have the same kind of discipline in our caucus, but on a lot of issues last time, some of the more moderate and progressive Republicans would vote with us. It didn’t happen a lot, but it happened sometimes. This session there’s going to be a lot more.”

But politics isn’t just a straight numbers game. There’s still a significant group of conservative Republicans who, even if they’ve divorced themselves from the Governor’s office, aren’t likely to support tax-and-spend Democrats.

Doug Mood, a Seeley Lake Republican and Speaker of the House, has emerged as an outspoken critic of Martz and her lack of leadership, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to jump on the revenue-raising bandwagon. Wanzenried and his peers can’t hope to convince Mood to switch camps. Rather, they have to court those GOP members who don’t fall into lockstep with either Mood or Martz. But first they need the ideas, and the leadership to communicate those ideas persuasively on both sides of the aisle.

The tax man

With his long white beard and gentle voice, Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula) seems more like a Middle-earth wizard than a tax guru—hardly the suit-and-tied sort you’d assume could build a bridge between two political camps. But he’s one of the Democrats’ most knowledgeable veterans, and the minority vice-chair of the House Taxation Committee. Along with a few other Democrats, Erickson talks the fiscally responsible talk and walks like a liberal looking out for the voiceless.

“This tax stuff is kind of arcane,” Erickson admits. “But first of all, tax policy is social policy, and secondly, we can’t make these programs work unless we’ve got the revenue.”

The House and Senate will look at dozens of tax bills this session proposing ways to raise revenue that are palatable to both parties. With many in the GOP reluctant to tamper with property, corporate and sales taxes, it will be the so-called “sin” taxes where common ground is likely to be found.

“Almost everyone I talk to is saying that there will be some increase in the cigarette and tobacco taxes,” says Erickson. “Which of the bills gets passed and where the money goes is really totally unknown at this point.”

Erickson cites three reasons for thinking the GOP will buy the hike: After the southern tobacco-producing states, Montana has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country, so there’s room to raise revenue without seeing a huge dip in the number of packs being purchased; There’s also an incredible health cost attached to treating smokers, a tab the state can’t afford to pick up forever, and lawmakers hope to see a slight decline in smoking as the price goes up, but still reap millions in revenue; And, two years ago, Erickson saw a similar bill to raise the cigarette tax just barely die on the House floor in a 50-50 vote.

“When I say that I think that we’ve got a chance to get a cigarette tax through, it’s partially those things,” says Erickson. “But it’s also that I hear enough Republicans saying, ‘Yes, we need revenue. No, we can’t have a government that meets the needs of the people with the $250 million dollar problem we’re facing.’” vBut even if the two parties agree on what to tax, there’ll still be a debate over how to use the money. Some Republicans want to use any added revenue to fund more business tax breaks as they’ve done in the past—lowering the business equipment tax, for example—the very policies to which Democrats attribute a good portion of the shortfall.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Ellingson (D-Missoula) points to the fiscal note on Senate Bill 200, a tax incentive bill passed in the 1999 session. The note, signed by then Budget Director Dave Lewis and Senator Mike Taylor, identifies “significant long range impacts” and reduction in general fund revenues of over $80 million in the next biennium, and over $160 million in the 2007 biennium.

“It was just incredible, the tax breaks that kept rolling through our committees, and it’s going to be very different this time,” says Erickson. “It’s hard to imagine those tax breaks working now.”

Many of the Republicans with whom Erickson worked closely over the last four years are gone, which he considers both good and bad. “We’ll have eight members from the Democratic Party and seven of them have been on the committee before,” he says. “On the other hand, the chairman of that committee was Bob Story (R-Park City), and he was the most knowledgeable person in the House of Representatives, well above me, on tax laws.”

Both Story and his second in command, vice chairman Roger Somerville (R-Sidney), won’t be around this session. Story has moved on to the Senate and Somerville lost his reelection bid. The departures open the door to new ideas, which can divide coalitions. “Recall that Democrats very rarely vote together and Republicans almost always do,” says Erickson. “You can’t necessarily say, ‘Oh, gee, we’ve got 47 votes on everything.’ Rather you’ve got to try and convince everyone about the lack of services and the lack of a future if you cut services for the state.”

Indian power

Working on voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns in Indian country, Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning), a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, found herself troubled at the dearth of Native Americans being attracted to politics. She struggled to register voters only to see them fail to show up at the polls on election day. While the Montana population as a whole has a voter turnout rate of about 54 percent, the Indian population’s turnout can dip as low as 40 percent. Juneau blames an attitude of hopelessness built on the perception that voting has little to no impact.

“They’re like anybody else,” says Juneau. “If the issue is important to them or the candidate is important to them, they’ll get out and vote. But there has to be connection, there has to be a reason.”

The experience led Juneau to the conclusion that Indians too often ask for help rather than pulling chairs to the table when it’s decided who’ll get helped. “Being involved in that [voter registration work] and getting to know some of the candidates for some of the offices, whether local or statewide, I realized that I needed to take that next step,” she says.

When Juneau first arrived in Helena she didn’t know how to be a legislator. She didn’t even know her way around the cavernous capital building. But thanks to a seating chart that places freshmen next to veterans, it didn’t take her long to get the hang of it.

“I sat by a legislator from Bozeman, Beverly Barnhart, and she was great,” Juneau says. “She told me what to watch for and how to introduce a bill on the floor. I just jumped right into it and asked lots of questions.”

Now in her third term, Juneau thinks that Indians just sitting at the table isn’t enough. They need to be sitting up close and whispering (or shouting) ideas at the table’s head. So last month, she ran for and was elected Democratic House Caucus leader by her peers. “I really think it’s time that American Indians have a role in the leadership at this level,” she says. “I want to help with that and make sure that American Indian people are not forgotten when we begin to discuss many of the major issues.”

As one of four members of the leadership team, which includes Wanzenried and the two minority whips, Monica Lindeen (D-Huntley) and Tim Dowell (D-Kalispell), Juneau now hopes to pass on the good advice she’s received.

In a state where Indians account for 6 to 8 percent of the population, they make up 4.6 percent of Montana’s 150-member Legislature, holding six House seats and one in the Senate. Those numbers mark a huge advance over just a decade ago, when the Legislature had just three Indian members. Currently there are more Indians in the body than ever—the seat they picked up in 2002 represents an increase of one from last session’s record number. As the only minority of significant size in Montana, Indian legislators will be courted by the Democrats, who will hope to maintain the Indian contingent’s traditional support.

It’s rare, says Juneau, but certain issues can divide the Indian vote. As a leader, she will have to find compromises within her own party and community before debates get to the House floor. “If I’m presenting a bill on a certain issue, I ask the others to come and help me testify and provide support for that bill,” says Juneau. “I think it’s very important that the Legislature see us stand together on particular things.”

All seven Indian legislators are Democrats, and the party will depend on them to assist policy-makers in understanding the scope of problems unique to Indians, like a 30 percent unemployment rate, increasing incidence of diabetes, and a growing high school drop-out rate.

“They’ll be able to speak effectively and eloquently for their own community,” Wanzenried says of the Indian contingent. “But they’ll also be speaking for the non-Natives, the same issues, employment opportunities that aren’t there, quality of the education system declining. How much difference is that going to make? That depends on how much the Republican majority wants to listen.” It certainly appears that some GOP legislators are paying attention. Juneau is working closely with Senator John Bohlinger (R-Billings) to pass a bill that would raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18—a program that will certainly cost the state millions, but may begin to reverse the dismal Indian drop-out rate. Juneau says there aren’t many Republicans who would care about this issue. Bohlinger carried a similar bill last session, but it didn’t pass. “I asked him if I could carry it or sponsor it this time,” says Juneau. “He said, ‘That’s great, you carry it on the House side Carol, and I’ll help you if we can get it to the Senate side.’” It’s this type of bipartisanship that Juneau and other members of the Democratic leadership are counting on.

The swing vote

The phrase “moderate Republican” doesn’t go far enough to describe Sen. John Bohlinger (R-Billings). Like all GOP moderates, Bohlinger is a juggler. But unlike your uncle Bill who’d pull a couple oranges out of bowl and toss them around like a goof for thirty seconds, Bohlinger’s got the chops of a Vegas headliner.

Bohlinger entered politics on a platform of tax reform, but overhaul is a more apt description. Juggling sales, rental car, hotel and motel, tobacco and gambling taxes at the same time while looking to reduce—and in some cases eliminate—income and property taxes, there’s not much about the current system he doesn’t want to tinker with. Asked if he was among the Republicans who signed Martz’ pledge to not raise taxes, his reply is definitive.

“Oh, hell no,” he chuckles. “Oh, jeez, I can’t believe those people. I just think that there are some functions of government that you can’t negotiate away and you need money, you need resources to fund them.” Bohlinger doesn’t really care what either parties’ official stance is, he wants more revenue, and he’s introducing three bills aimed at putting millions back into education, social services and even the state park system. And he think each bill is a damn fine idea.

“What the hell is wrong with any one of them?” he asks. “They’re not trial balloons or sacrificial lambs, they’re good solid proposals. And now it’s up to me to show people the good sense behind them.” Bohlinger’s not naïve. He knows what’s going to happen when both parties get a look at his plans. He says the Democrats will line up and say they can’t support his sales tax because the party has historically dug its heels in against sales taxes. He also knows that Republicans, many of whom have signed the pledge to not raise taxes, will be against him as well. To Bohlinger, both parties’ logic is hogwash.

“The Republicans must listen to their consciences and they must listen to the people back home that they represent,” he says. “They must put a name and face on the poor because they are people they go to church with, or shop with. They are their constituents and they can’t ignore them.” Bohlinger also wants the Democrats to do some rethinking. He says they need to admit that some form of sales tax needs to pass, but insists it doesn’t have to be one that impacts low-income Montanans.

“We’re going to ring out all of those things that would make a sales tax regressive,” he says, “the things that would be harmful to the poor.” Bohlinger’s sales tax bill proposes a four percent tax on goods and services with exemptions on necessities, like unprepared food, groceries, pharmaceuticals, and utilities. Bohlinger even thought to include an exemption for items purchased at thrift stores like Goodwill. If Democrats complain the tax will still hurt low-income families, Bohlinger has more. He also wants to eliminate the income tax for anyone who makes $13,610 or less annually.

If all three of Bohlinger’s tax bills pass (and work as he predicts), the result would be a balanced budget, fewer public service cuts, and millions of dollars for K-12 and higher education.

“Either we’re for kids or we’re just kidding, and damn it I just think that we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is,” says Bohlinger. “And let’s get real, most of this is going to be paid by Montanans. But we’ve got to think about our greater need here, and our greater need is to backfill this budget gap so we don’t have to take further reductions in human services or in education. You can’t call yourself civilized if you’re not going to fund human services.”

But Bohlinger doesn’t see his ideas as being at odds with Republican ideas. Neither does he see himself as a Democrat in wolf’s clothing.

“I think that issues facing the state of Montana—the concerns for funding education, the concerns for the human service efforts of government—those concerns don’t wear party labels, or at least they shouldn’t wear party labels,” he says. “I hope that I’ll get some support from people in my caucus as well as from across the aisle in bringing these ideas forward.”


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