Spin Doctors vs. the Orchestra Leader

By Beacon Staff

Editor’s note: The Beacon published Democratic leader Art Noonan’s take on the session in last week’s print edition.

In last week’s issue of the Beacon, Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, lamented how the “spin doctors” would relate how the “right-wing rigidity” brought down the 2007 Legislature. The question I have for the “orchestra leader” of the Democratic caucus of the Montana House of Representatives is what perspective the “spin doctors” might put on the spending of a $1.3 billion over-collection of taxes without giving any meaningful form of tax relief for those that paid them.

I think most of us will be interested in where it was spent and why there wasn’t a bit of tax reduction for anyone when the state budget grew in general fund spending by nearly 23 percent, which followed a 16 percent increase in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s first administration.

Rep. Noonan is correct to state that it wasn’t term limits or the House majority leader that set the tone of the ’07 Legislature. What he doesn’t recognize is that it was an ego-driven, frequent-flying, spendthrift governor who failed to build any effective lines of communication with representatives of either Republican leadership and instead chose to undermine the caucus by luring 14 moderate Republicans to a “cabin in the woods” to bargain with them for votes on his bloated budget.

It was this governor’s aggressive director of the Department of Revenue that initiated legislation that would have increased taxes on a single Montana company, Plum Creek Timber Company, by changing the way Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) are taxed in Montana. This act would have been contrary to federal tax law and increase the tax liability of Plum Creek by more than $12 million. Unique to Montana and perhaps one other state, this tax would have effectively driven the company from the state, reduced local tax revenues for counties and schools, and left thousands of Montanans out of work. Interestingly though, this bill would have “allowed” Plum Creek to transfer title of their lands in lieu of the new REIT tax payments. Hmmmmmmmm, was there another agenda here?

Rep. Noonan also laments that the committee assignments in the Republican-controlled House were unfair and unbalanced. This is ironic, since the speaker of the House waited until the Senate assignments were made by the Democratic majority and simply mirrored the committee’s makeup in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

What was different about this session was the constant presence of the governor’s representatives in nearly every committee hearing and in the halls during the entire session. One item on his long agenda was to oppose legislation that repealed the prohibition of legislators lobbying from working as a lobbyist for two years after serving. How interesting? His staff was lobbying extensively along with many, many other state employees. Ironically, during the past interim two seated Democratic senators received very “cushy” jobs from this administration and continue to work in them today. Hmmmmmmm?

Another interesting fact is the number of state employees that have been elected and serve while employed by the state and nearly all are of the party of the governor and Rep. Noonan. Is there a conflict somewhere? We are a citizen Legislature and not paid professionals. With term limits wiping out the institutional knowledge of experienced legislators the lobbyists, bureaucrats and staff have gained a real upper hand in the institution and pretty much destroyed the high levels of statesmanship, loyalty and trust of previous legislatures.

In a widely distributed memo from the Democratic House leadership, Rep. Noonan was anointed as the orchestra leader and the members were the players. He did a good job of leading the band; the problem was the band was just a little out of tune with the Montana taxpayers.

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