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The sign of a successful legislature is missing from Helena

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The Montana Legislature passed Medicaid expansion last week as one passes a kidney stone: finally, and with a lot of ill-considered remarks. The working majority shepherded SB 405 through a hail of parliamentary maneuvers, during which Rep. Art Wittich called members of his own party traitors, Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen tried to renege on his "silver bullet" deal with Democrats and 49 Republicans voted to adjourn the 2015 session entirely.

It was a spectacular breakdown of legislative decency. But in the end, the working majority worked, and Democrats, moderate Republicans and Gov. Bullock got the federally mandated Medicaid expansion that 70,000 Montanans have waited for since 2011.

The governor celebrated by vetoing the second Republican tax bill of the session. I agree with him that Rep. Duane Ankney's SB 200 inordinately benefited people at the high end of the income scale. But it reflected the will of a Republican Party that had just checked its radical wing to pass legislation central to the Democratic agenda.

Perhaps signing their $200 million tax cut would have made a nice thank-you gift. Bullock differs with Republicans on the value of trickle-down economics, but they do control both houses in Helena. He might have rewarded their willingness to compromise with a compromise of his own.

What we're talking about here is comity: the attitude among our leaders that even when they disagree, other elected representatives deserve respect. Comity is the byword of any successful legislature, and it has all but vanished from the 2015 session.

In an interview with Kristen Inbody of the Great Falls Tribune that can only be described as beautiful, Rep. Randy Pinocci, R–Sun River, provided a neat example of this phenomenon. Among other issues, he discussed his frustration with Bullock's promise to veto the Republican budget proposal currently moving through the Senate.

"The majority of my constituents want smaller government," he said. "What does the taxpayer want? I hear every excuse, but we spend money on [expletive] that's ridiculous. I want to go to the Deaf and Blind School and see if they're struggling."

He also lamented the failure of his proposal to drug-test welfare recipients, arguing that it would have saved lives. "How could it get to the Senate and then die? Something is rotten," he said. "I've got dead children all over this state, and it could be fixed with this."

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

The license-plate slogan "Montana: Dead children all over" would probably keep the Californians out. It's easy to smirk at these intemperate remarks, but it's also easy to see that Pinocci believes what he's saying. He genuinely thinks that drug tests for welfare applicants will save kids' lives. He apparently does not know that TANF recipients in states with similar programs have tested positive at a rate of about 2 percent, but that doesn't mean he is crazy or heartless. It just means he's wrong.

But the thing about Rep. Pinocci is that he believes he is right. Like his failed bill resisting a nonexistent UN plan to abolish private property, his suspicion that deaf and blind kids are doing just fine seems misguided—even silly. But Pinocci seems silly to us because we, too, are certain that we are right.

It's an epistemological conundrum. What this system needs is some acknowledgement on the part of the individual that other people might know better.

Sometimes, what is immediately obvious to us can still be wrong. I'm willing to go dollars to doughnuts that life is hard for deaf kids who can't see, but probably there is some other point of disagreement between myself and Rep. Pinocci where I am utterly certain that my own mistake is right.

Perhaps the concession to this principle that we call comity could have avoided some of the more embarrassing moments of this year's session. If Art Wittich had conceded that the majority could be right about Medicaid, he might not have abused his committee chairmanship so destructively. If the governor had conceded that the majority could be right about tax structures, he might have reassured the Republican Party that giving is a reliable way to get.

Maybe Helena needs fewer leaders willing to stand up for what's right and more negotiators willing to sit down and run a government. I admire Pinocci's, Wittich's and Bullock's commitments to their principles. I'm just not sure they know better than everybody else.

Readers of this column know I have committed some unproductive exaggerations—for example, when I said Wittich planned to replace the state's puppy mills with puppy incinerators, or that U.S. Sen. Steve Daines nourishes himself by lassoing rainbows and drinking their pigment. These inaccuracies I regret.

I'm pretty sure I'm right all the time, but once in a while people and circumstances conspire to suggest otherwise. I do what I can to overrule them, but occasionally I must submit to majority opinion. It's the only way to get anything done.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and catchphrases at combatblog.net.

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