When the People Were Better Served

Our political system, federal and state, worked better when it was less political

By Bob Brown

The most significant infrastructure bill in over a quarter of a century was passed by the just-adjourned 2017 legislative session. It was the six-cent increase in motor fuel taxes which will make it possible for Montana to continue to match federal dollars for highway maintenance and construction at a ratio of seven federal dollars to one Montana dollar.

The highway infrastructure bill was passed by an embattled coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Its passage was necessary to assure our roads and highways will be adequately cared for and that good blue-collar jobs will continue to be provided to support thousands of Montana working class families for many years to come. Thanks to the leadership of Kalispell Republican Representative Frank Garner and Democratic Governor Steve Bullock for making it happen.

The last time an infrastructure proposal of this size was enacted was nearly a quarter century ago. As with this year, the 1993 Montana Legislature was faced with the problem that the existing tax on motor fuel wasn’t sufficient to match federal highway dollars.  Rather than leave the federal money on the table, neglect our roads, and sacrifice jobs, the Legislature took the necessary action.

Spearheaded by an earlier Kalispell Republican, Representative John Harp, and Democratic Representative Jerry Driscoll of Billings, the tax on gas and diesel was raised a nickel a gallon. Harp was a businessman with strong ties to the business community. Driscoll was a leader in the Montana AFL-CIO. That was in the time when if the Montana business community and organized labor were on the same side, they usually prevailed easily. That was the case with the motor fuels legislation in 1993.

At the same time that the 1993 gas tax increase passed the Montana Legislature and was signed into law by Republican Governor Marc Racicot, Democratic U.S. Senator Max Baucus was engaged for Montana on the national level. Baucus had just become chair of the U.S. Senate Public Works Committee. With the active support of our junior senator, Republican Conrad Burns, Baucus was successful in changing the federal matching formula to make it more favorable for states with small populations and large amounts of highway miles. Such bipartisanship was easier then than now on the federal level, too. The result was a windfall for Montana. With the 2017 tax increase, that will continue.

The fragile bipartisan legislative coalition of Democrats and Republicans which just passed the motor fuels tax was not large enough, however, to pass the other major infrastructure legislation, which depended for funding on bonding, because bonded indebtedness requires a two-thirds majority. The result was that badly needed building projects for college classrooms in Bozeman and beds for aging veterans in Butte, which had easily passed the Senate, were killed by a minority of only 34 votes in the 100-member Montana House of Representatives. Most of these same 34 legislators also opposed the gas tax. The result is that Montana’s critical building needs will still have to be addressed in the future, but probably at higher interest rates.

More’s the pity, too, because legislation to make possible loans for largely rural water projects from coal money, and to finance the critically needed and long postponed reconstruction of the Montana Historical Society facility, died in political maneuvering which resulted from the death of the bonding bill.

I don’t think this would have happened in 1993, in a legislative culture more practical and more respectful of different points of view. Our political system, federal and state, worked better when it was less political. The people were better served.

Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.

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