Those with a few years under their belts, or a penchant for reruns, may recall “Fantasy Island,” a popular TV serial of the late ’70s that featured Ricardo Montalban as the tall and distinguished “Boss” and his faithful sidekick “Tattoo.” The concept for the series revolved around individuals who flew into a tropical island where, wonder of wonders, their wildest fantasies could come true. Last week, thanks to the latest release of Republican party policy statements, “Fantasy Island” came to Montana.
In Montana’s adaptation of the show, Rep. Roy Brown, R-Billings, plays “The Boss,” ably assisted by his smaller but feisty counterpart, Sen. Cory Stapleton, another Billings Republican. Every segment of the original TV show started with the same scene—The Boss and Tattoo are waiting by the airstrip for the next arrival when suddenly Tattoo points to the sky and crying “Boss, da’ plane, da’ plane.” When the jet lands, the door swings open and none other than former Speaker of the House John Mercer, now chairman of the Board of Regents, comes walking down the stairs to seek his fantasy.
The fantasy, which was released last week under the almost laughable “Handshake with Montana” rubric, entails the Republicans’ plan for the future should, as Stapleton said, “Montanans return us to majorities in the Montana House and the Montana Senate.”
The plan, as elucidated by Rep. Brown, promises: “Smaller government, lower taxes, stronger families, higher wages, and greater freedoms.” In more detail, that would mean lowering property taxes by 8 percent, repealing a water tax that is being used to fund the state’s water adjudication program, more energy and natural-resource development, lowering college tuition, and more money for education and health care.
For Montanans who only recently came to the state, such promises of what the Republicans would do if only they were in charge again must sound absolutely fantastic. In fact, when you look at what really happened during the 16 years of Republican domination of Montana’s governor’s office and Legislature, “fantastic” is an exceedingly apt term.
Starting with Stan Stephens’ ascent to the governor’s office in 1989, the Republican agenda was clear. Right out of the chute, Stephens tried to literally dismantle government. Unfortunately for his plans, throughout his one-term stay in the Capitol he faced a split Legislature, in which Democrats controlled at least one house and repeatedly foiled his efforts.
Marc Racicot, however, was not so unfortunate. In ’93, when Racicot took over the governor’s office, the Republicans had already taken control of the House of Representatives, with John Mercer as Speaker. Two years later, the Repubs held two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and their agenda rolled on unimpeded.
That agenda, far from the latest fantasy version, was nothing but ugly. The 1995 session saw the total gutting of Montana’s once-famous non-degradation policy for state waters. Instead of protecting our water quality for future generations, the Repubs bowed to the pressures of the mining, agriculture, and real estate industries to allow pollution of both surface and groundwater by using such dubious measures as “mixing zones,” where pollutants would “mix” with clean water and be diluted to the levels required by federal standards.
But trashing the environment was just the beginning. Under Mercer’s leadership, the Legislature turned on the state’s educational system and significantly reduced state funding. In real terms, what this accomplished was two-fold, neither of which fits in with the new fantasy policies promised last week. By reducing state funding, school districts were forced to turn to property taxes for their revenue. As any Montanan who owns a home can tell you, that little move has caused property taxes to soar over the last decade. Now, especially in the growing areas of the state, outrageous property taxes threaten to drive low or fixed-income Montanans from their homes.
Second, the reduction of state support for higher education caused tuition costs to skyrocket. In the last 10 years of Republican control of state government, state support of the university system fell to 37 percent while tuition picked up a whopping 63 percent of the cost. Now, Montana’s students can easily come out of college with loan burdens of $20,000 or more—which is a tremendous debt on a young person just starting out, and a significant barrier to starting a family, buying a home, or enjoying the “freedom” promised in the latest Republican fantasy.
In large part these funding cutbacks were not caused by state revenue shortfalls during the booming ’90s, but by the Republican penchant for shifting taxes off the wealthy and large corporations and onto the backs of ordinary citizens. The Montana Department of Revenue estimates that Continental Oil Co. of Houston, Texas, was able to save about $1.3 million in 2000 alone thanks to the Republican tax giveaways, while Exxon slipped away with almost a million. Our old friends at ASARCO—the responsible “corporate partners” that have left the state with tens of millions in toxic cleanup costs—got off with $400,000, while Cenex saved a clean $592,847.
But where does John Mercer step into the picture? Well, Mercer admitted last week that he has had a conversion regarding his former outlook for University System funding. “I was one of the most conservative members of the Legislature,” Mercer told reporters. “To bare my own soul, my objective was to give the university system as little as possible so there would be money for other things.”
But one must ask: If Mercer’s decidedly “conservative” Republican counterparts were returned to their legislative majorities of the past—replete with their long-standing political ideologies and tax policies—how would it be possible to lower taxes and increase education, let alone health-care, spending?
The answer is they can’t and won’t. No one can consistently cut revenue while increasing spending. Unfortunately, the latest Republican promises could only come true in one place—Fantasy Island.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.