GUEST POST: When Democracy Blocks the Will of Oligarchs

by Secret Squirrel

The dynamics of rules committee decisions, motions on the floor, and other assorted parliamentary maneuverings (and tantrums) this past week have roots in last year’s elections. They also suggest what will happen and be at stake in the 2016 cycle. The common denominator in both the future and past is the money that flows into the GOP primaries and generals.

A good portion of funding in 2014 from everyone’s favorite Montana oligarch, Greg Gianforte, who has every reason to see this session accomplish nothing as he plans his 2016 gubernatorial run. Lending their own bottomless wallets to numerous candidates were Ray Thompson,  computer millionaire from Kalispell, and Texas fracking billionaires from the Wilks family. And adding a little extra darkness to the wheelbarrows of money that went to Montana GOP legislators last election cycle was what we do not know came from groups like American (Western) Tradition Partnership (ATP), Americans for Prosperity, and assorted other gun and rightwing groups who financed many legislators from the shadows.

This money started flowing a year ago in the GOP primaries of 2014 where those assorted oligarchs and groups attempted to unseat many of the moderates who formed today’s working majority. In retrospect, the oligarchs’ and party’s understanding of the dynamics of the races and potential for the 2015 session was right on target. However, despite deep contributions to candidates running against the likes of Rep. Christy Clark, Dan Salomon, Frank Garner, and the other assorted 10 “Responsibles” these moneyed interests achieved nothing. The “Responsibles” ran with local money and ran clean campaigns. May that be the message from here on out. The races were not even close and one has to wonder if those to their right had just left these Republicans alone that the tide may not have gone as far out this session. You can always count on them overplay their hand.

One so-called moderate, Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, played the GOP’s game in 2014 and received $340 from Mr. and Mrs. Gianforte. He also doled out donations to other connected Republicans and appeared to be a team player. Then during the 2015 session, he stood up against party votes like “Agenda 21” and brought a bill forward to keep open primaries. Then after getting slammed on the floor and at home, he seemed to come back to the fold and went against the Ankney bill. But then, oddly, he seems to have returned to helping the working majority by voting for Medicaid and made the motion to put the CSKT compact on the floor. Is he back? The jury is out until the end of the session but he could be a powerful figure in a future moderate-led legislator.

But back to the 2014 primaries. Rep. Art Wittich and Randy Brodehl helped to finance many of these insurgents against the moderate Republicans. Now, Wittich has been the leading voice on the floor against the working majority Republicans bucking the party line to get things done, in many cases for the interest of their rural hospitals and constituents. During his spasm over the rules of the “silver bullets” Wittich said he wanted them to realize he did not want “Republican fingerprints” on Medicaid expansion. That comment was out of order but revealing for reasons that will play out below.

The money continued to flow into the general elections of fall 2014 and most of them meant nothing despite the cash that kept flowing as if they would be close elections. Money to Wittich, Jeff Essmann, Matt Monforton, and others who won their elections by three to four times their opponents. But a quick $340 here or $680 there sends a message to the party and the candidates about where their support comes from and what expectations there will be.

After the general elections, the session leadership took shape and, again, it is in the money that you can see how it formed. Some of the House floor leaders did not receive much from the oligarchs but most received a good portion from assorted PACs, like Thompson’s Excellence in Voting PAC. Many from PACs outside the state like OneOK or Denbury Resources. financed others and they are oil and gas interests who gave equally to House leadership and members, including some moderates but mostly it went to legislators who would pull the strings.

In all, the Wilks spent more than $16,000 on primaries and general elections and the Gianfortes around $12,000. These are numbers from the candidates C5 filings on the Commissioner of Political Practices raw data filings so those numbers are compiled from numerous forms and could still be amended. But at this point, even if I did miss some donations here or there, it is probably pretty close to what went out. None of this counts what was probably a good deal of mailers and calls to constituents in those districts from dark money fringe groups. My guess is a lot of time and money went into that.

In return for the effort, House committees are stacked with legislators who received oligarch money. For that relative small amount of money, they bought control these committees intended to crush major bills this session. In some ways, you could call it a coup.

Just take a look at the heavy-hitting committees and consider, pre-session, what bills they would come to host: (the list is by number of GOP representatives in the committee and how many took Gianforte or Wilks money)

Appropriations (financing and backstop): 12 GOP, 9 financed and led by Ballance

Education (school “choice,” Common Core): 9 GOP, 7 financed and led by Laszloffy

Human Services (Medicaid expansion): 10 GOP, 5 financed and led by Wittich

Judiciary (referendums, compact): 12 GOP, 9 financed but chair Bennett not funded

Rules (emergency backstop): 10 GOP, 8 financed and led by Essmann

State Administration (campaign finance): 11 GOP, 8 financed and led by Essmann

Then take a look at what would have been relatively unimportant committees:

Business and Labor: 11 GOP, 2 financed (one is Fitzpatrick)

Fish, Wildlife, and Parks: 12 GOP, 5 financed

As the session started,  the system worked and not much made it into, or out of, those committees. The oligarch-funded legislators and their rightwing friends held strong. Then, with the moderates in the wings, the Democrats started to maneuver at some bills like SB 289 (Sen. Duane Ankney’s shot at ATP and other dark money groups) and move them into different committees to get around the blockade. Republicans took note and did what they could to avoid the motions.

Which brings us to what happened with SB 405, the HELP Act, over the past several days. Wittich held the hearing on it before the session returned, on a day and time he had never held a meeting of his committee before, and voted on it immediately. None of this was surprising.

It turned into a rules fight when it came back to the floor despite his smug obstinacy and was salvaged by “silver bullets.” It is Wittich and others in leadership who are reneging on this deal because they did not think the Democrats could use the rules to their advantage and violate what was supposed to be pre-determined one party rule of the session.

But beyond that, it is leading to more than a fissure between moderates and the 40 or so other Republicans. Remember how they always overplay their hand? The fight over the rules is now causing some differences between oligarch-funded representatives. You can see the ire in Essmann’s eye when Wittch and Mike Miller spout off about the votes that have transpired. Knudsen seems worried that he might lose control of floor but seems content with Wittich’s plays. He did a valiant thing by allowing the ACT to pass on April 11 by moving the vote up in the day’s order. Still, these are just the beginnings of the cracks among those who were financed by the same people and have the same interests. It would follow the likes of Wittich, Miller, even the recently-quiet Monforton would attempt numerous future schemes on the floor to gum up the works and ensure their backers get what they need.

But what is the mutual concern between those bending the rules and their backers? Why so much discontent about Medicaid and tribal compacts? Why would they be willing to go back on their own leadership’s agreements regarding “silver bullets” and “blasting” bills?

For Wittich and Miller, neck deep in the American Tradition Partnership fiasco and funded by Gianforte along with other rightwing donors and groups (to include ATP’s Doug Lair, who personally contributed to their campaigns in 2014), this is about 2016. It’s about ensuring Governor Bullock has no successes to run on. It’s about party purity and enjoying that high of having unadulterated power. What’s most important in that equation is their interests are in no way aligned with the interests of most Montanans, those #MillionsofMontanans. Their interest is in remaining in power and defeating the other side at any cost. In the zero sum game, even their own are fair targets.

In January 2015, the House GOP set up the perfect machine to make sure nothing happened. That machine had a few cogs bust loose as of late and it is venting steam. Important bills are passing this session and it looks good for the governor’s 2016 chances in a turnout-friendly presidential election cycle. For all money and obstacles the oligarchs and their minions threw at the process this year, they accomplished little. There is still much to do and they will do what they can to stop it, but what has passed already is a good on its own. One can hope the message of the 2015 legislative session to be carried into the 2016 elections is that in Montana big money has no power.

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12 Comments on "GUEST POST: When Democracy Blocks the Will of Oligarchs"

  1. Secret Squirrel | April 14, 2015 7:57 AM at 7:57 AM |

    Here is the raw data, by name and amount, from the COPP filings:

    Wilks: $680 to Laszloffy (ed, judiciary, whip); $680 to Monforton (judiciary, education); $680 to Knudsen (speaker); $680 to Brown (State Admin); $680 to Essmann (state admin, ed, rules); $680 to Fiscus (Judiciary); $680 to Hertz (education, rules, taxation, revenue estimation, whip); $680 to Holmlund (approps); $680 to Manzella (judiciary); $680 to Mortensen (state admin); $680 to Osmundsen (approps, joint approps); $680 to Pinocci (judiciary); $680 to Ricci (human services); $680 to Tschida (approps, joint approps)

    Gianfortes: $340 to Laszloffy; $340 to Wittich; $680 to Monforton; $170 to Knudsen; $170 to Regier; $170 to Ballance; $680 to Berglee (human services, judiciary); $170 to Brodehl (approps, subcommittee aprops); $340 to Brown (state admin); $340 to Burnet (approps, joint approps)t; $170 to Ehli (approps, subcommittee on DPHHS approps); $680 to Essmann; $340 to Fiscus; $340 to Greef (education, state admin); $340 to Hagstrom (approps, long range planning); $340 to Hess (human services, judiciary); $340 to Holmlund (approps, long range planning approps); $170 to Jones (approps, joint approps education); $680 to Lamm (education, state admin); $340 to Manzella; $340 to McKamey (state admin); $340 to Meyers (education, judiciary); $340 to Miller (taxation, rules, revenue estimating); $340 to Mortensen (state admin); $340 to Osmundsen (approps, general government approps); $680 to Pinocci; $170 to Randall (speaker pro, rules, taxation); $170 to Regier (majority leader); $170 to Redfield (human services, taxation); $340 to Ricci (human services); Fitzpatrick ($340 from both Gianfortes)

    Primary opponents: Skees (Garner) $340 from Gianfortes; Herbert (Olszewski) $340 from Gianfortes, $680 from Wilks; Anderson (Clark) $340 from Gianfortes, $680 from Wilks; Morren (Cook) $340 from Gianfortes and $680 from Wilks; Hutchinson (Hollandsworth) $680 from Wilks and $340 from Gianfortes; Gorham (Berry) $340 from Gianfortes; Wagner (Shaw) $680 from Wilks and $340 from Ginafortes; Erb (Welborn) $680 from Wilks and $340 from Gianfortes; Dunham (Moore) $680 from Wilks; Vogel (Greef) $680 from Wilks; DelGado (Salomon) $680 from Wilks

    • Gianforte’s ‘shills’ strategically placed in committees, as freshman Pinocci was in Judiciary, a major ‘checkpoint’ to kill progressive bills and advance ALEC bills.

  2. Well done, Secret Squirrel, it can get laborious following the money. Thanks.

  3. Greg Gianforte spoke at UM-Western Monday morning about how entrepreneurism, not legislation, is the answer to low salaries in Montana. He bragged about how his company had boosted Bozeman’s economy. He answered softball questions from the audience, comprised mostly of business students required to attend by their instructors.

    I finally got to ask him a question, which was “Since selling your company to Oracle for $1.5 billion, you’re probably the wealthiest man in Montana. Do you plan to use your fortune to become governor in 2016”?
    Gianforte refused to answer, and a man from the business department stood up and angrily told me that questions were supposed to come from students only (even though most of the questions asked so far had been from non- students). I left at the break. Maybe I should’ve stuck around and got tossed out.

    • You should have gotten paid for your story by one of the state dailies. Unfortunately they only do what advertisers allow. Maybe in a few years, as that industry dies off and the mobile internet rises up to replace it. Then you might be in luck. Until then, good job doing what reporters should have been.

  4. Did your media and searching tell you how your Legislators voted on SB 289? Interested?
    See the voting records, by PDF or spreadsheet, by clicking on box on right,
    of SB 289 page, on Flathead Memo.

  5. It’s suspicious that moderate Ron Arthun did not run for re-election. He would have beaten Nels Swandal in a contested primary. Swandal, then as state district judge, was lauded by American Tradition Partnership for ruling in favor of its agents Christian and Allison LeFer.


  6. I admire Rep. Wittich’s arguments. He may be bought, for all I know, but he speaks with intelligence and grace. Rail as you like at the influence of dark money on Montana politics, but the real tragedy is that this wonderful state is forever shy of playing lead, but only Rube. Today the House sold water rights of inestimable worth, rights that belong to all Montanans, for a song. To a private corporation. Whose shareholders are determined by blood quantum. Call me racist. So be it. Our tribe is Montana, not a subset of Salish Kootenai. The obligation of our elected representatives is to preserve our assets, not to sell them as baubles. This travesty is comparable to the Republican sellout, SB 390, in 1997.

    Neil Templeton

    • Mr. Templeton,

      As an employee of the Montana Public Service Commission, do you believe Rep. Wittich spoke with intelligence and grace when he railed against NorthWestern Energy? What about House Bill 42?


      • NOT speaking as an employee of the PSC, as I don’t have authority or inclination to do so; as I recall, HB 42 was not intended to deprive ratepayers of valuable information or to run interference for the utilities. It was a streamline bill intended to reduce regulatory burden and cost to ratepayers. I was not involved with the bill, but that is my understanding.

        Regarding Wittich’s copper wire comments in the attached article, I am not aware that he contacted staff at the Commission regarding the avoided cost benefits of net metering to ratepayers. Certainly it can be argued that the utility might benefit through stiff-arming net metered customers and other small distributed generators, but even if that argument is valid, it does not follow that the utility is in error when it argues that paying net metered customers the transmission and distribution component of the rate might not be in the best interest of ratepayers, or that expanding full delivery rate compensation for net metering up to 1 MW nameplate is good policy.

  7. Breaking news – but no surprise – EVERY GOP member of the Senate’s State Administration Committee who voted against confirming Commissioner Motl ALSO VOTED against SB289, the ‘Dark Money’ Bill sponsored by their former senate comrade, Rep. Duane Ankney. This is yet another example of how Knudsen and Debby Barrett STACKED the deck with committee members funded by Gianforte (Daine’s mentor and ‘dino and jesus guy) and the Wilkes Brothers, who’ve been buying up thousands upon thousands of acres of Montana land and shutting out hunters.

    Let’s hope Motl’s confirmation bill gets ‘dragged’ out of committee.

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