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Uncommon Ground

Halftime Shows Leadership Void

Legislature

“Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin to express senselessness and the inadequacy of any rational approach by the abandonment of sensible policies and discursive thought. Politics has long been viewed as a mix of comic and tragic theater, with public debate seldom moving a vote.

If the first half of the 2011 Legislature serves as an indication, this session will be remembered in Montana history as an absurdist theater whose subtext is symbolic of keeping the middle class passive by refusing to focus on debates of importance.

Rather than “Waiting for Godot,” the middle class is “waiting for a plan” on job creation; lower homeowner property taxes; and funding essential services like public education. Many have called politics absurd but this is not a quality fitting of the people’s Statehouse.

Allowing the Legislature to ramble and refight culture wars leaves middle class with the impression that we are watching sitcom, rather than debating important public policy. The middle class may appear passive, but it’s time for leaders in the Legislature to provide some focus.

With a 68-32 House majority and a 28-22 Senate majority we’d expect that the Republicans would be able to produce a concise vision on how to move Montana forward. But one-third of the GOP majority are freshmen and they had different ideas. They seem intent on reigniting culture wars and revisiting history.

It appears that Republican legislative leaders are struggling to contain their newfound majority. The countless mini-revolts in committees led to marginalized bills coming to the House floor. The newly elected Republicans seem far more interested in being vanguard, than finding solutions to the everyday dilemmas facing the middle class.

Issues like decent jobs and homeowners’ taxes have taken a back seat to ideological and divisive legislation: from private militias for Montana, to mandated marriage counseling, to illegal immigration, to perpetuating the urban vs. rural divide, to anti-choice laws targeting women, to jury nullification and federal nullification committees, to silencers for guns, to guns at the capital, workplace, bars and schools, to birth certificate reviews, to realigning the state Supreme Court, and to increasing taxes on renewable energy.

These bills instill political conflict and assure a loss of focus. The point of the previous generations’ culture wars was to create conflict and division in society. It was perceived this division would focus the political base. It would then provide raw political meat to the base. And an active base would enthusiastically turn out in elections.

Republican House Speaker Mike Milburn sided with his caucus and voted no on the 2005 budget and no on Senate Bill 1, the school-funding fix bill. In 2007 he voted with the shutdown-government crowd by refusing to pass a unified budget. Milburn voted no again on the budget in the ensuing special session.

In 2009 Milburn voted yes on his first state budget. He voted yes on House Bill 658, the Republican policy to reappraise property taxes. And Milburn voted yes on House Bill 645, the federal stimulus and recovery funds distribution for Montana projects that passed by a 51-49 margin.

Recently, Milburn supported tragic bills like “anybody can be a school superintendent” and “forced ultrasounds for women.” Moderate Republicans voted both bills down on the House floor as Milburn wages a balancing act with his caucus. Focusing on frontier bills like “spear hunting” assure comic theater but do little to advance Montana.

Over the years, Speaker Milburn has demonstrated good leadership. He has the skills and respect to assure a compromise and finish the work of the Legislature early. He should present the state with optimistic principles that assure middle class success. But he has to focus on what is important to the people of Montana.

The Legislature must fill the leadership void with a strong second half or risk being a part of history like many absurdist plays about public policy. The Legislature should honor its promise to Montana and pass a balanced budget that properly funds essential services like public education, creates jobs and lowers homeowners’ property taxes.

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