The legislature adjourned Sine Die last night, which in Latin means “without day” (and in Helena-speak means “we’re outta here”).
Dramatic reversal of fortune for Democrats, who came to the session as heavy underdogs facing the real possibility of becoming road kill. The GOP, upon sweeping the elections and achieving record majorities in both houses, came to town ready to make Montana Right Wing History.
Instead, Dems ran circles around the GOP for the better part of the session.
Jon Sesso and Carol Williams, the House and Senate Leaders for the Ds, thoroughly outclassed Jim Peterson and Mike Milburn, who spent most of the session looking dazed and confused, as the radicals in the GOP caucus dictated the terms and humiliated the Republican Party, an effect felt so far and wide that even Denny Rehberg’s numbers sank as a result. Often the leaders could not even get commitments on votes from their own caucus, even when the GOP leaders had made commitments to Dem leaders that they would deliver votes. From day one, Dems were disciplined and had a plan. The GOP never recovered from their early advocacy of crazy and kooky bills that made their way onto national network news shows, Comedy Central, CNN, MSNBC and FOXNews. Strangely, the GOP seems not to ever have felt at all remorseful about the bad publicity this gave Montana.
Schweitzer supplied some theatrics to put the nail in the coffin, with his wildly successful cattle branding veto party, one of the funniest stunts in Montana political history, one that left the GOP looking stupid, weak and deflated, and “bat-crap”crazy unable to respond in any meaningful way.
The 800 pound gorilla in the room the whole session was a several-hundred-million-dollar surplus created by Schweitzer and the Dems during previous sessions and over the last interim, which was bad news for the GOP because they showed up with a hammer but found no nails. In the end, the GOP will do doubt try to brag about a minimal cut of government spending, hoping that nobody reads the fine print: the Schweitzer administration had already reduced spending–submitting a budget with a myriad of thoughtful cuts before the session even began. So it was a semantic reduction for the GOP’s talking points that was ultimately agreed upon.
On big ticket items, the GOP talked tough, like Tea Party types; but fortunately they got stared down, and blinked, in the end. Like their effort, wildly popular among the Tea Party, to refuse all federal funds. The funds were restored in the final agreement.
Also problematic for the GOP, and good for the state, is an overhaul of the work comp system. Working hard in the backrooms throughout the session was Rick Hill and his wife Betti. Evidently Hill believed that having his paws and prints all over a legislative fix of Montana’s very expensive worker compensation program (premiums were the highest in the nation as of the start of the session) would be beneficial to his upcoming campaign. That dream came crashing down when Schweitzer got Milburn and Peterson, in front of all the cameras at a press event, to admit that whoever the architects of the current work comp system were, they sure as hell screwed things up. Who was the architect of the current system? Rick Hill. At the signing ceremony, I’m told that Schweitzer commended the legislators who produced the work comp fix, commended them for “their courage in being willing to admit that Rick Hill and Marc Racicot created one of the worst and most expensive work comp systems in the country.”
On the lighter side, good news that none of the famous “nut-job” bills–like the spear-hunting, the birther bill, the legalize discrimination bill, the militia bill and the nullification bill, etc.–became law. They were all either vetoed with a branding iron or died in the legislature at the hand of a coalition of D’s and a few moderate Rs. Whether these Rs can survive the Tea Party wrath in the next GOP primary is an interesting question. I am sure Roger Koopman will weigh in on it. Unfortunately, so much time was spent on nut-job bills–and an 18th century social agenda–that there wasn’t time to put together anything meaningful on jobs.
Plenty is left to be ironed out, and the Governor will do doubt be busy vetoing or signing bills for a while, including the medical marijuana revision that is very controversial. It also looks like some crap referenda will be on the ballot next fall. But overall, in the 2011 legislature, it is safe to say that the donkey handed the elephant its ass, in a very unlikely upset.