A Dem Leader’s Take on the Session

By Beacon Staff

Editor’s note: The Beacon will publish a response to this column by Republican Senator Greg Barkus of Kalispell next week.

As the spin-doctors have been reviewing the last Legislature, it reminds me of the blind men describing an elephant, each perspective telling a different story. My perspective comes from a seat on the aisle and as Democratic manager of the House floor.

It was not term limits or Rep. Mike Lange, R-Billings, that set the tone in the ’07 Legislature, it was a Republican ideology so narrow and rigid it didn’t even represent mainstream Republicans.

As a Butte legislator, I went to this session dedicated to identifying the middle ground on energy development, social programs, and government regulation. Those efforts were thwarted at every turn by House leadership dedicated not to reasonable change, but to conservative social revolution.

From day one the message from House leadership was warfare and social change. Stacking two-to-three vote majorities on every committee, rejecting the established budget process, and appointing an anti-education Constitutionalist to chair the education committee were the types of heavy-handed leadership that became the norm in the House.

What became apparent when the budget finally passed the special session was that these institutional roadblocks were meant to control the Republican side of the aisle as much as the 49 Democrats. If you add to this list the fact that the Speaker of the House believed he had the power to (and in fact did) unilaterally veto legislation that had received positive passage, no House member had a chance to pass legislation that did not fit into the radical conservatives’ hatred of government.

This control was especially disturbing because it was led by a small group of Bozeman Republicans — all relative newcomers to what I remember as a small cowboy town in my youth. Thank God my ancestors — all good blue-collar Democrats — were smart enough to invest in building universities, supporting Yellowstone Park and improving highways, so these political isolationists could move there.

Make no mistake about why there was a special session. It wasn’t necessary. In fact, the budget we ultimately passed was on the table at the end of the regular session when the House Republican leadership decided that a special session was in their best interest. We then witnessed a pre-meditated campaign designed to achieve political advantage and not sensible government.

During this special session, one set of actions was particularly revealing. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations committee presided over the budget and with his three-vote advantage passed all of the amendments he wanted and blocked all of what he didn’t want and still came to the House floor calling his bill garbage. Apparently, the only budget acceptable to the Republican House leadership was one that decimated the Department of Revenue, made multi-million dollar cuts to human services, accepted no federal funds and only funded infrastructure projects in loyal Republican districts.

It was only the persistence of a governor dedicated to moving the state forward, joined by 49 minority House Democrats and a few moderate Republicans, that foiled the Republican strategy to close state agencies. Instead of a government shutdown, achievements were made, including capping university tuition, record homeowner tax rebates, optional kindergarten for all, relief for struggling state retirement funds and increased investment in our local business communities.

Montanans are tired of the politics of polarization. The elections tell us that in Montana, people of diverse political beliefs go to work together, pray together, raise their children together and dream of positive, healthy communities together. They don’t want to fatten government and they don’t want to starve it, they want it to work for them. This session shows why we should elect legislators who are more attuned to the needs of their local constituents and less allied with extreme agendas of Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, or the national conservative think tanks.

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