Ochenski: The first wave

Racicot's spending spree comes home to roost



Montana’s budget woes are but the first wave of repercussions to hit the state from former Gov. Marc Racicot’s policy blunders. Unfortunately, the mainstream media ignored Racicot’s spending binge during his tenure while mewling over his charming personality. As a result, Racicot’s ratings skyrocketed, he became one of Bush’s hatchet men during his presidential campaign, and wound up with a fat Washington, D.C. lobbying job as his reward. But in Montana, the state he left behind, the grim results of these bad policies are now so apparent that even the mainstream media can no longer ignore them. Even worse, the same policies are now showing up on the national level.

This week the first in a series of Special Reports from the Lee newspapers took a long-overdue look at the recent past. Not surprisingly, they found that Racicot’s runaway government growth was built on what now appear to be incredibly shaky assumptions. Rep. Dave Lewis (R-Helena) is the former Budget Director for a number of Montana’s governors (including Racicot) and now, as a legislator, must face the fiscal morass. “We did start increasing spending in these years, but it was because we had a big jump in income taxes” Lewis told reporters. “In 20-20 hindsight and all that, we should have spent about half of it and saved about half of it. We wouldn’t be trying to take money out of the Coal Trust today if we had built up a rainy-day fund.”

Unfortunately, Lewis’ “hindsight” is fatally flawed by his own party’s foundational beliefs. Republicans do not support the idea of having the government “save” large sums of money, and their political philosophy has always been that “extra” money would be better spent by giving it to business ventures. That very philosophy resulted in hundreds of millions in tax cuts for corporations during the Racicot years, the bet being that more taxes would flow from a theoretical increase in economic activity. But as Missoula’s Sen. Jon Ellingson told reporters: “We now know that is nonsense.” This same philosophy is glaringly evident in Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax giveaway—the vast majority of which goes to the already wealthy. And while that policy may also fail to generate more revenue, it will undoubtedly make Bush’s rich friends a lot richer.

Lewis is also off base about raiding the Coal Trust. While he is correct that Repubs hope to bust the Trust for $100 million to balance the budget this session, that’s nothing new. For at least the last two decades Republican leaders have tried desperately to garner enough votes to spend the Trust. Again, going back to their core political philosophy, Republicans simply do not believe in government trusts and would gladly have beggared the Coal Trust for business “investment,” “infrastructure,” or the day-to-day expenses of government. Luckily for Montana, they were unable to garner the three-fourths vote of each house of the legislature necessary to bust the Trust during the last two decades—and they are just as unlikely to muster those votes this session.

In short, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who were in complete control of Montana’s government when the decisions to significantly increase government spending were made. Racicot, as noted in the article, was dubbed “no ally of the taxpayer” by the conservative Cato Institute which, in 1999, gave his fiscal policies a D grade. But by then, the damage was done and Racicot was off on his grand quest to get George Bush elected president.

Which brings us around to where we are now. Racicot has risen to the top while Montana has fallen to the bottom. The policies that Racicot implemented while governor of Montana are echoed in the policies coming out of the Bush administration. Is it coincidence that the EPA recently decided to relax air pollution rules for utilities and industries, some of which are Racicot’s clients? Is it coincidence that the new forest management policies vastly favor the timber industry—another one of Racicot’s clients—over environmental protection? I don’t think so.

In fact, the Bush budgetary policies are starting to look far too much like those Racicot left behind when he split Montana. While claiming to want a smaller government, Bush is building the largest increases in government spending in decades. That those increases are driving the nation back into hundreds of billions, if not trillions, in deficits seems to concern President Bush no more than it concerned Gov. Racicot. Pushing debt service onto future generations is, after all, a well-documented modus operandi for Racicot, all too evident as we now face the debts he left behind.

That Bush seems to be blind to the pressing needs of the country in favor of a runaway military-industrial spending binge is likewise, straight from the Book of Marc. His answer, like Racicot’s, is the pot of gold at the end of the Republican Rainbow. If only we give up our freedoms, liberties and privacy, we will be rewarded with security in the form of a police state run by the Pentagon. If we slash environmental regulations, give tax breaks to the largest of the multinationals, and open what’s left of our natural resources for corporate plunder, why, somewhere down the line all the theoretical resulting economic activity will make these “investments” seem worthwhile.

Or will they? Here in Montana we are learning the hard lesson of Racicot’s empty promises. We gave and gave, but we never got anything back. Watching these same policies emerge on the national level sends a chill down the spine. The aging Baby Boom generation has peaked in earnings and grows daily in needs, while the threat of global war overshadows any promise of future economic growth. The implications seem clear. Far out at sea, more giant waves of policy repercussion charge toward our shore. But now, as then, the mainstream media seems lost in approval ratings and personalities, distracted by war and blind to the coming calamity.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.


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