The Montana Legislature adjourned today “sine die.” For Tea Party legislators who do not understand Latin, this means literally “without day,” meaning no specific return date.
The 2016 session was generally an excellent one for Governor Bullock as well all Montana citizens. The state now has a budget surplus of several hundred million dollars which can remain in the bank and protect us against any future unforeseen financial headwinds, in what is known as a “rainy day fund.” This is a concept that was invented by Democrats in the last decade, has always been fought by Republicans, but is the chief reason why Montana is rated as the best fiscally managed state in America. When we had Republican governors, we often had a very slim margin of safety and sometimes had budget crises and deficits because the state did not stash money away, and thus had nothing in the bank when revenues fell. That’s Republican Stupid. Now we are Democratic Smart.
The budget that passed yesterday excludes one important item, an infrastructure bill which would have helped us beef up our old roads and bridges and build new buildings in university towns and elsewhere. This required two thirds vote of both houses, and the Tea Party would not relent. Even a few legislators from eastern Montana, where Republicans always complain about the lack of infrastructure in the Bakken, voted down the measure. Likely we won’t be seeing those legislators returning.
The new budget also contains also a pay increase for both state workers AND state legislators, assuming Bullock approves it. That’s right, legislators got a raise. Many Montanans will no doubt grumble about that, but there’s a positive side to it. It’s important to remember that legislators are part-timers who work for a small stipend. If the job pays a bit more, more perhaps we can attract to the Capitol something other than the breed that now populates the two chambers: wealthy men whose ideas and world view are completely out of touch with the 21st century.
In addition to the good fiscal news, we of course have the important passage of the CSKT Water Compact and the Medicaid expansion. This package passed with the help of 12 moderate Republicans who understand the value of an infusion of $5 Billion in federal funds over the next eight years, as well as the fact that 70,000 Montanans don’t have health insurance because they cannot afford it. For conservatives, a few bones were thrown in such as malpractice reform and requiring the poor to pay more for care.
Other highlights include the voting up of Jon Motl as Commissioner of Political Practices. Motl almost got denied, because he made the mistake of believing that laws should be enforced. He has lately been prosecuting candidates and officeholders who believe that laws should NOT be enforced, and they in turn tried to sink his nomination. But that strategy backfired. And in a disgraceful show of bad sportsmanship, the irritable Dee Brown, Republican Senator, tried to get the Senate to not even take a vote on whether to confirm Motl. But she got stuffed by the same several moderate Republicans who voted with democrats for most of the session. Motl received 29 out of 50 votes in the Senate, including seven Republicans.
Governor Bullock also succeeded in fixing a major inequity- survivors of domestic violence in Montana had been denied unemployment insurance–until now.
While Bullock and the Democrats were the big winners, the big losers were the Tea Party Hot Heads. They got trounced. Austin Knudsen was their man, elected speaker with visions of right-wing glory. But it went quickly up in smoke, without a branding iron. His leadership was quite disorganized and feckless, and thus final results of the session–Bullock getting most of what he wanted–were rarely in doubt.
Also with a stink on him now is Art Wittich. So odious was Wittich’s behavior in this session that that it is being whispered within the walls of the Capitol that Wittich single-handedly caused the moderate Republicans to walk away from their own party. And yesterday, a big businessman from Bozeman let it be publicly known that the town would band together to oust Wittich because of his refusal to vote for the infrastructure bill. That bill would have brought dough to Bozeman, a town with growing pains. Now they won’t get it. Wittich was not representing.
Over in the Senate things were a bit more orderly although Tea Partier Debby Barrett, the figurehead Senate President, was ultimately forced, like Knudsen, to deliver Bullock what he wanted. Barrett’s svengali, whispering advice in her ear for the duration of the session, was none other than Dave Lewis, a retired state Senator from Helena. He did so on a volunteer basis. What Lewis wanted out of this arrangement is unclear. Perhaps as a moderate Republican, he saw an opportunity to undermine the Tea Party. More likely, having been defeated by Schweitzer so many times over the years, he thought he could finally take out some payback on Bullock. But as you can see, that didn’t go so well either.
My final observations are two-fold. First, Democrats should not shed tears over being in the minority, because there are really three political parties represented in the Montana Legislature. One is the Democratic Party; the other is the Tea Party; and the third is the working majority–a coalition of Dems and moderate Republicans who behaved as independents. But the sum of those parts is a legislature that governs by coalition and seems capable of producing most of what a Democratic governor would want.
Second, I don’t see how anyone, Greg Gianforte or anyone else, can now have any path to victory.
Conservative Republicans were able to kill a badly needed infrastructure and jobs bill. That was their lone contribution to this session–and a major misstep. Bullock negotiated the bill with GOP Speaker Austin Knudsen and the bill was carried by Sen.John Brenden, former chair of the state Republican Party. Yet the TEA party wing voted against the bipartisan agreement. Then they shut down the session and left town- closing the door on any possibility of further talks or negotiations. The failure to pass this bill–and the consequences–can only be blamed on them.
How can voters possibly trust a scenario in which Republicans–Tea Partiers, in fact, which is what Gianforte is–will control both the legislature and the executive? I don’t see any Republican winning that argument. The Conservative brand is something that Montanans are happy to send to Washington but want nothing to do with in statewide elections. Crazy is not a brand that sells, when running for Governor. Montanans want an adult.
And now I, too, will adjourn Sine Die for a while to a few days off where internet access is not an option. See you soon.