Schweitzer's last stand

Political columnist George Ochenski previews a legislative session that promises to be contentious



The 2011 legislative session has been underway for a little more than a week now and it's shaping up into a bare-knuckle brawl between Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. For Schweitzer, it's the first time in his six years in office that he faces a united Republican legislature. And for the Republicans who swept into office during the so-called "Red Tide" of November, it's no-holds-barred as they face a governor whose routine insults of legislators are not forgotten nor taken lightly.

It is against this background that the political drama of the next four months will be staged. Although hammering out a balanced budget is the primary goal of every legislature and, hopefully, the end result this year, there remain many ongoing side stories that touch virtually every aspect of our state, and will affect our lives, for better or worse, for years to come.

The hollowed halls of the Montana Capitol. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Major players

The Gov

Gov. Schweitzer stands front and center this session as he tries to defend his proposed budget. But in many ways, Schweitzer has painted himself into a corner not only on budgetary matters, but on a host of ancillary issues as well. Plus, his overtures to the Legislature have been rather schizophrenic. One day he tells legislative leaders there "is no bridge too far" to work together. An hour later, he tells reporters he will not appear in front of legislative committees to discuss his budget priorities, nor allow his department heads to do so. One day he says he is "cut from the same cloth" as Senate President Jim Peterson. The next day, Schweitzer accuses the Legislature of being "big boozers," and cites increased alcohol sales in Helena during legislative sessions as proof of his accusation. And, of course, Schweitzer actually went so far as to sue the 2009 Legislature last year over a two-year old bill that he claimed was unconstitutional. Although the court dismissed his suit, you can bet that legislators—all legislators—will remember the governor's actions.

Needless to say, Schweitzer's reputation for bullying both friends and enemies has not gone away. In fact, many wonder just how the governor will actually be able to justify his own rhetoric. Take, for instance, his 180-degree turn on energy development in Montana. Remember when the newly elected Schweitzer threw his massive, corporate-sponsored inaugural ball in Helena's Civic Center at the same time he was passing out "New Day" pins and proclaiming himself to be free from undue corporate influence?

Now, that seems laughable. The "clean and green" Schweitzer has morphed into the Coal/Gas/Oil Cowboy, who just made a trip to the Washington coast to make sure pesky environmental concerns don't get in the way of plans to ship millions of tons of Montana coal to China. Yep, the same China that the governor once cited as a huge polluting nation in need of direction from none other than Brian Schweitzer so he could show them how to use his "clean coal." Now, he argues there's no difference between burning the coal in power plants in Montana and shipping the energy out or simply shipping the coal to China so they can burn it there.

Heck, even his dog Jag must be confused since Schweitzer once claimed Jag would "sniff out oil and gas lobbyists" that the governor would then shun. Only now if Jag sniffs out an oil and gas (or coal) lobbyist, it'll be the governor who runs over to shake his hand and talk about more development of the Bakken oil fields, Alberta's tar sands and Otter Creek's coal.

If it sounds like a challenge to try and negotiate with someone who changes his mind, his commitments and his priorities from day to day, welcome to the 2011 session. The fact that Republican ideology is likewise shot through with hypocrisy on any number of issues only compounds the problem of communication between the governor and the Legislature.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer posing with a .22 rifle in his office last week. It’s the first time in his six years in office that he faces a united Republican legislature. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Gov. Brian Schweitzer posing with a .22 rifle in his office last week. It’s the first time in his six years in office that he faces a united Republican legislature.

Legislative leaders

Given the Republican majorities in both chambers of the 2011 Legislature, if you want to discuss what the legislative leadership is going to do, you'll be talking about Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and Speaker of the House Mike Milburn, R-Cascade.

In terms of experience, Peterson far exceeds Milburn, having served in the House from 2003 to 2006 prior to moving to the Senate. But in terms of influence, the 68–32 majority the Republicans carry in the House gives them the ability to override the governor's veto without a single vote from a Democrat. And while the Senate's 28–22 Republican majority means it can pass whatever bills it wants without Democratic support, they'll need at least five Dem votes to override a veto. While that number may seem daunting, when it comes to the multitude of bills now targeting Montana's environmental regulations—particularly on energy and mining exploration, development and reclamation—it's certainly not inconceivable that the Senate may well be capable of joining the House to neuter Schweitzer's veto power.

Although Peterson and Milburn set the agendas for the Senate and House, it is in the committees where that business is largely conducted. And here, the legislative leaders have been picked for very specific purposes. For instance, the third most powerful person in the 2011 Legislature is perhaps Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who was budget director for a decade and served under both Republican and Democratic governors.

Lewis will chair the Senate's Finance and Claims Committee and will, in all likelihood, be the sole gunslinger facing the governor over the budget at session's end. While the Montana Constitution requires all appropriation bills to originate in the House, the working reality of the Legislature is that when the conference committee dust settles, it's Senate Finance and Claims that calls the final shots. There's no reason to believe, especially with both chambers controlled by one party, things will be any different this time around.

We can also expect to see some fireworks from the Democrat's House Minority Leader Jon Sesso. Having chaired House Appropriations last session, Sesso, D-Butte, is well acquainted with the budgeting process. This session, Sesso is carrying one of the major bills required to transfer funds to balance the governor's budget, and will likely face a tremendous uphill battle to see it passed.

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