Statehouse? Or Schoolyard?

By Beacon Staff

“Stay ‘till May! Stay ‘till May!”

That was the drumbeat during a House Republican caucus in the closing days of the 2007 Legislature, which will go down as one of Montana’s most embarrassing.

Surely, the majority of legislators played nice during their four-plus months at the Capitol, trying to reach compromise on tax cuts and school funding. History will instead remember the partisanship; the outbursts and rants that made constituents laugh, journalists drool and lawmaking dumber.

Two political parties acted like opposing schoolyard bullies (with no disrespect to schoolyard bullies) and couldn’t resist throwing fits, many proving that their ill tempers match their ill-fitting suits.

It’s unclear who fired the opening salvo this last session. What goes on behind closed doors in Helena is a mystery. And if House Majority Leader Michael Lange’s closing barb, which ignited the abovementioned chant, was any indication, it’s even worse than their public performance.

He accused the governor of bribing him on April 25, two days before the regular session was scheduled to end, during a private morning meeting. Hours later, Lange lost it, suggesting the governor “go straight to hell” and can “stick it up your _ss.”

It was the climactic moment in a tragic comedy that eventually led to Lange’s demise and ouster as House GOP majority leader. It’s now playing on YouTube.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, on cue, remained diplomatic following the insults. Yet he shouldn’t be viewed as a victim. The profane environment was a mutual effort. The governor, who often overshadows his own party as the lone voice of the Democrats, can be antagonizing. He was absent at key times during the final week of the session and shortly after it fell apart; flying to California for a fundraiser and appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” then betting on horses at the Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile, our politicians couldn’t agree on how to cut taxes, despite a $1 billion surplus. And both political parties simultaneously imploded.

On the first day of the special session, Republican lawmakers protested – holding up signs to boot; their outrage aimed at Democrats along with their own colleagues who worked with the opposing team during the short recess. One Democrat, not to be outdone, called Schweitzer a “bully” for his blanket criticism of lawmakers. The governor had implied the Legislature is a lazy group that spends too much time eating thick steaks and sopping up old whiskey.

But wrath, not gluttony, was the sin of choice this past session. Men and women paid to reach compromises turned vengeful. Their egos overshadowed any goodwill. Their schoolyard-bully instincts kicked in. Those hoping to get past the rows were ignored.

Toward the end, two politicians that were getting along were Lange and Schweitzer, who must have forgiven the former calling him an “SOB” just weeks prior. Now the pair was hoping to cut a deal on tax cuts. Weird.

That’s what happens when they stay ‘till mid-May: bullyness and weirdness.

To make up for the embarrassment, next session lawmakers should go home in February. Then cut every Montanan a check with all the money they save.