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You’ve Stepped In It Now

Last week Montana voters decided that our political status quo should be burned to the ground.

We tipped over the balance of power that has governed the state for sixteen years: Republican legislatures and Democratic governors. Tipped it over like an outhouse on Halloween. We will have a Republican governor and large Republican majorities in the Legislature starting the first week of January, 2021. I believe a majority of us will regret it.

It was a solid victory for the elephant team but not a huge one. About 11 out of every 25 voters voted for the status quo. Thirteen or so out of that 25 voted for something different right down the ballot. They got a Republican sweep at every level of government.

I wonder how many of those 13 of 25 Montana voters who chose to destabilize their government understand what is about to happen to their state? I believe many do not. Our politics of slogans and personalities steers right around discussions of policies and consequences.

We just elected the most reactionary governor in 30 years. And the Legislature? Our Republican legislative caucuses have self-selected the most extremist, right-wing membership for two solid decades, driving out the moderates among them. These are not your Main Street, country club Republicans. This is an ideologically driven wrecking crew. They will interpret their victory as an undeniable mandate to bust out their sledgehammers and spark up their cutting torches.

Plainly speaking, we are about to be governed by the most extreme faction among Montanans at large.

We don’t have to speculate about what this crew is going to do. They’ve been telling us for a long time. For sixteen years they have trumpeted their rhetoric, and introduced and passed a large number of right-wing bills, only to have them vetoed by Democratic governors. That check and balance is now wiped out. Stand by for an onslaught.

Of course the Republicans did not campaign on this agenda. They never do. They are doing their best to be coy about it even now, ten days later. The Montana media is weak and complacent, so the few statewide reporters who understand this could never spell it out. And as usual, the Montana Democrats were too inept to make it clear themselves and give the voters a real choice. So, based on my own years of experience in the Legislature, let me lay it out for you.

Montana government, society, and culture are about to be massively reconfigured. The new team has such large majorities that they will easily have two legislative sessions, in 2021 and 2023, to carry out their long-desired destruction of the Montana status quo. In three and a half years a majority of the rest of us will be shaking our heads wondering how this happened.

The Short Story

There is a lot of content here, because this is such a big subject. Here is the preview. As the saying goes, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. All this is now on the table. The folks at that table won’t be using dainty butter knives. They have cleavers and hatchets.

  • Large tax cuts and large budget cuts are in the pipeline. Long term, the Coal Tax Trust Fund is in danger.
  • The rights and dignity of women, Native Americans, gay people, and poor people will be diminished. The war on drugs will roll on. You won’t get what you voted for when you voted to legalize cannabis.
  • Schools and the university system will see large budget cuts. Teachers unions and public employees unions will be attacked and quite possibly dismantled.
  • Much more chaos is coming to our healthcare system. Many people will suffer, especially the last and least among us.
  • Packing heat anywhere, anytime will be the new normal.
  • Access to public lands will start getting cut off. Our stream access law is severely threatened.
  • The climate catastrophe will be ignored. Pollution and environmental degradation will start ramping up. No mine will go unpermitted, no pollution discharge permit ungranted. But we will write blank checks to fight fires.
  • Northwestern Energy’s customers are in danger of being stuck holding the bag for cleaning up Colstrip.
  • The rights of workers, voters, and people who rent homes will be reduced and ring-fenced. Trade unions are in big trouble, as are overall wage levels. Public employee pension funds will be shredded.
  • The powers of cities will be diminished. Your city commissioners will have their hands tied in multiple ways.
  • Operations of the Departments of Revenue and Environmental Quality will be severely disrupted, to the benefit of large corporations and the richest residents.
  • Spending on arts and culture will evaporate.
  • We know how this ends. Adding it all up, we the people will gradually become poorer, sicker, and less educated.

The Long Story Starts With Money

Let’s start with the top priority. The governor-elect has shown through his own lobbying efforts over the past fifteen years that his first and most important priority is a large tax cut for himself and his buddies in the private jet set. He will sell it with the usual malarky about how this will spur investment and jobs, and will actually pay for itself with new tax revenue from all the instant prosperity. This is not true. It has never been true anywhere it has been tried. And economic growth is not its purpose.

This is the Kansas Experiment. Pass a massive tax cut, then just wait. In a year or two when the state’s revenue crashes, pull out the chainsaws and mow down every bit of government you don’t like. For this new team, that means just about all of government except law enforcement, agriculture, highways, and prisons. And open-checkbook firefighting.

The tax cut will go in the oven this winter during the 2021 legislative session. When they meet for the 2023 legislative session, the table will really be set with budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Then they will carve that budget like Edward Scissorhands giving a haircut.

Over the past 16 years, the state’s financial condition has improved. Governor Bullock got a rainy day fund created in 2019. This fund is why this past fire season did not cause financial distress. Lack of this fund had been a longtime mark of poor financial management for the state. I would expect financial games to get played with this fund, which has to be factored into each coming budget. Getting rid of it entirely will be a favored option.

I also expect game-playing with the budget’s ‘ending fund balance’, which is always the subject of a big argument amongst legislators and the governor. It is the planned budget cushion at the end of the two-year biennium. A bigger number is more conservative. Believe it or not, that number has grown over recent years due to the firm guidance of donkey-team governors. The elephant crowd focuses on cutting this safety margin, leaving us skating further out on thin financial ice. Note closely: this is a specific strategy to provoke a financial crisis, which helpfully creates another reason to cut more expenditures.

If they screw this up badly enough, we will see a special legislative session in 2022 where the budget will get carved just for practice.

The crown jewel of Montana’s state finances is the Coal Tax Trust Fund. This is a billion-dollar nest egg that provides cash flow as a perpetual annuity, for the benefit of the people. By and large, the income from this fund is invested in Montana communities. As a freshman legislator, I was handed a notebook bearing decades of signatures by my predecessors, pledging to never ever ‘bust the trust’, meaning to raid the body of the trust for some worthy cause, thereby reducing future income.

There were a few but not many Republican signatures in that notebook. Until further notice, busting the trust is on the table. Our piggy bank will slide down the slippery slope of self-induced financial emergencies.

Human Rights

Our new Governor and his allies in the Legislature have a big problem with people who are not like them. Unfortunately, that is a lot of humans.

If I were a betting man, I would go all in on this bet: by 2024, Montana’s abortion clinics will no longer be providing abortions. Extra bonus: availability of birth control will be threatened for anyone on Medicaid and many others as well. Pharmacies will have free rein to deny medications as they wish.

Women will also endure attacks on health insurance aimed at allowing insurers to charge women more than men, for less care.

The governor-elect has made some harsh statements regarding tribal self-government. An important faction of his legislative allies have bitter feelings about the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal Compact. The not-so-subtle racism that abides in the Montana Legislature will roll on. The endless contention between our tribal governments and the state is not likely to have any kumbaya moments anytime soon.

Gay and transgender rights will be under full-spectrum assault from the get-go. On this subject, there are no limits.

Our new crew takes a dim view of the fact that legalized weed got more votes than the governor-elect. Every time we the people have passed a cannabis initiative, our Republican caucus in the Legislature has used legislative power to amend it, constrain it, and generally confound the will of the people. They are already submitting bill draft requests to do that again.

Even if it remains untouched, the administration still has to engage in copious rule-making before we will see retail sales of cannabis. This is where our governor-elect can slow-roll the process. He gets to set the priorities for administering the law. This might take years.

Our new attorney general is a hardliner on drugs. Enforcement over compassion will continue to rule the day. Prison beds will outnumber treatment beds. And the show will go on.

Education

The extremist souls who are now running this show have a long antipathy toward public education. You can expect enthusiastic and vigorous assaults on public schools and the Montana University System on multiple levels. First, easiest, and most obvious is to pillage the funding. You should expect significant budget cuts to public schools and the university system this winter, and more in 2023 after the tax cut loots the treasury.

Downstream, school districts will have no choice but to raise property taxes. Those who will benefit most from the income tax cut are the richest among us, and out of state corporations. But schools still cost money, so Montanans will foot the bill through their property taxes. When they say ‘tax cut’ they mean ‘tax shift’. What you get back on your income taxes you will send to your county courthouse as property taxes.

Take this to the bank: there will be serious moves to divert more, much more, public tax money into private schools.

The next level is to lay siege to the teachers union. Following the example of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, our governor-elect will have no qualms about simply rejecting the teacher’s unions as bargaining agents. Ditto for all the other government employee unions. He may choose to pick that fight this winter, or adopt a more patient strategy. Along with all the other attacks on workers rights (see below), I believe that the umbrella organization, the Montana Public Employees Association, along with MEA-MFT, will be in terminal decline by the end of the new governor’s first term.

The Montana University System too will suffer immediate and significant budget cuts. You can look forward to tuition going up next fall and every year after that as the new governing team demands that the system downsize.

The final level of destruction will occur more slowly, as the current Board of Regents of the Montana University System are replaced as their terms expire. Remember, in Montana, the university system is really a fourth branch of government, controlled completely by the Board of Regents. The Regents are appointed by the governor. By the end of his first term, our new guy will have appointed four of the seven members. Complete control will require his re-election, but with four out of seven votes, he can start remaking the system.

You can expect that future Board of Regents to hire a new Commissioner of Higher Education more in keeping with their ideology. That will affect who gets hired as presidents of the various campuses for a long time.

Going beyond budget cuts, you can expect ideological battles to consume the university system. Over time we will learn to say goodbye to support for any program the right-wing clique can label as ‘liberal’. Which is a lot of campus programs, and a lot of jobs.

Health

The saying in state government is that the budget consists of “education, medication, and incarceration”. ‘Medication’ is shorthand for the Department of Health and Human Services, which routes billions of dollars of Federal money into the health care system in Montana. Much of this money has to be matched by a small fraction of state money. We have a large bureaucracy to comply with all the thousands of pages of Federal law and regulations governing these funds.

I personally have sat through many a debate in which various right-wing stalwarts got up and pronounced that we’ve got to shut this down because the Federal budget deficit is unsustainable. I fully expect this rhetoric to be amplified over the next two legislative sessions.

At a bare minimum, you can anticipate that last session’s Medicaid expansion to be reversed, instantly ending health care for 80,000 Montanans.

But that will be the beginning, not the end. You can look forward to massive cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services. Entire programs will be shut down. Hundreds if not thousands of employees will be fired. Downstream, expect agony across the health spectrum.

The federal contribution to this spending is enormous, in the billions. Each of those dollars requires some fractional match of state funds. As these budgets are cut, we are literally spending dollars to save nickels and dimes.

Montana is older and poorer than the nation at large. The elderly and the impoverished will be sicker, even more broke and destitute. Smaller hospitals will be pushed to the edge of insolvency. Some may well close.

Also coming your way: approval of junk health insurance policies, the kind with huge deductibles and copious restrictions that prevent claims from ever being actually paid.

Guns, Guns, Guns

The new Republican government will overturn the status quo regarding guns in Montana. I anticipate unlimited concealed carry without a permit, to be legal anywhere in Montana. Building on the passage of legislative referendum 130, schools, the University system and local governments will not be able to regulate the open or concealed carrying of weapons.

In order to prove once again that guns and alcohol make a bad cocktail, we will see people packing heat in bars.

You can also look forward to enjoying the expansion of ‘stand your ground’ laws. This will result in more shootings where all the perpetrator has to say is ‘self defense’ to require police to stop investigating. This will be done in the name of making the state safer.

One time I heard one of my fellow legislators claim, on the record, that ‘an armed society is a polite society.’ Translated, this means that perceived disrespect or threat can and should be corrected at gunpoint. Like they do in other armed and polite societies such as Beirut or Baghdad.

Public Lands, Hunting, and Fishing

A significant faction within the Republican caucuses are large landowners, meaning farmers and ranchers. Many of them have an abiding disgust for the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. They hate it when FWP acquires new lands, they dislike public access to agricultural lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and they want a big revision of how hunting licenses are granted.

Dead certain: for the next four years, there will be no land acquired by FWP for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. Quite possible: existing state-owned wildlife refuges will get sold or traded.

I would expect that existing public access to our lands will be reduced. I would also expect to see large numbers of big game licenses granted directly to outfitters and large landowners for dispersion to their out of state clients and friends. Elk hunters know that this translates into fewer opportunities for Montanans.

Fishers and floaters beware: our new Lieutenant Governor is on the record saying that our stream access laws are too broad. This opinion is popular among our new government. So, also dead certain: bold and energetic ambushes of our best-in-the-nation stream access law.

Environmental Protection

I am planning for a world where my state’s government refuses to take seriously our slow-rolling climate catastrophe. Judging from behaviors we have observed for years, we can forecast that we will turn our backs on our disappearing glaciers and shorter winters. But we will darn sure hand over a blank check to fight superfires raging across ranchlands and grain fields.

Your right to a clean and healthful environment is not something that your new governor cares about. His allies in the Legislature have deep disdain for it. Expect persistent bombardment of environmental regulation across the board. Many longtime observers and participants in our government can foresee the end of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which is what stands between industrial companies and wholesale pollution of our water, our land, and our air.

That will shatter a nearly 50 year long consensus in this state that we must stand firmly together to establish and enforce sideboards for the conduct of industrial-grade mining and timbering.

No mine will go unpermitted, no pollution discharge permit ungranted, and enforcement will wither like barley in a drought. The long term consequences will take decades to appear, but appear they will. In future decades we will be adding more names to the honor roll that currently stars Butte, Libby and Zortman-Landusky.

Some of this will take longer, because rewriting regulations under Montana law is a non-trivial, time-consuming task. The departments of Environment Quality and Natural Resources will get started on this immediately after the Legislature adjourns.

Our constitution says our right to a clean and healthful environment is superior to the interests of international corporations who are willing to ruin our land and poison our water. The corporate endgame is elimination of that right. I would not be surprised if they tried that.

Power and Telecom

The system of electrical power in Montana is a wondrously balkanized mess that takes a wagon load of words to explain. Suffice it to say this: Northwestern Energy now has the whip hand in Helena.

For reasons that are hard to understand and even harder to explain, the several dozen power cooperatives who enjoy publicly subsidized Federal power in rural Montana ally themselves with Northwestern to the detriment of Northwestern’s customers, who live in and near Montana’s cities. Together, they will take another run at buying part of Colstrip, while excusing Northwestern from taking responsibility for cleaning up that soon-to-be Superfund site.

They tried this in 2019 and barely missed. This time they will have the full power of the governor’s office behind the effort. The result will be a replay of electrical deregulation in 1999. Remember that? Back then, our power bills doubled. This time, Northwestern’s ratepayers will be saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars of cleanup costs for decades to come.

Alternative energy? Fuhgeddaboudit. Back in 2009 the CEO of Northwestern said these words to me in the basement of the Capitol: “I have nothing against alternative power, as long as I own it.” You can look forward to changes in the rate structure such that you will be charged an enormous ‘access fee’ if you want to have solar panels on your home. Which will make the solar panels uneconomic. Which is exactly the point.

Over at the Public Service Commission, the all-Republican membership will continue its hostility to alternative energy.

Rural Montana has a real ‘digital divide’ when it comes to internet access and internet-based prosperity. Our new governor-elect, being a tech guy, may choose to invest in rural telecom to provide high-speed internet access to the large parts of the state where bandwidth sucks. Those are his voters. But frankly, I would be surprised if he did.

Worker’s Rights and Pensions

By May of 2021, after the Legislature folds up its tent, you can expect that Montana will be a so-called ‘right to work’ state, meaning that unions will lose the power to act as ‘closed shops’ requiring all the workers they represent to pay dues. This kills unions. Killing unions puts real pressure on overall wages, which is one of the purposes of the exercise. Under these conditions, paychecks don’t grow very well.

Our minimum wage is scheduled to go up on January 1. That is likely the last increase until further notice.

We will also have a new law allowing ‘at-will dismissal’. It may surprise you to know that in Montana, any firm over 50 employees can’t just fire people for no reason. The idea is that the firm has a commitment to its workers, and to get rid of any, they have to have a good, documented reason, with a chance for the worker to fix the problems before being dismissed. Alternatively, they can lay off a group of people, but must take care not to discriminate on account of sex, age, and so forth.

This new crew does not believe in any commitment by any person or business to their workers or their community. They quite literally believe there is no such thing as the public good. Before you can say what?, your employer will have the power to fire you for any reason or no reason, any time.

The machinery that deals with workers who are hurt or out of work, unemployment insurance and workman’s compensation, will surely take a beating. Workman’s comp in particular is a favorite punching bag of our new crew.

As we already discussed, the state employees’ and teachers’ unions will be crushed. But that’s not the end of it. All state, county, municipal, and school district employees in Montana participate in a pension system that has this peculiarity: all the pensions are controlled and managed centrally by the state, through the Montana Board of Investments. This was a smart move made decades ago, so Montana does not face the problems happening all over the country, as every city, every county, every school district has a standalone pension system that can’t possibly contend on a fair footing with the predatory sharks on Wall Street.

Doesn’t matter. The new sheriffs in town hate public employee pensions. You can expect legislation to cut new hires out of the system and put them on some kind of 401k plan. This is the death blow for the pensions, for without new money from younger workers, the system will go bust. Thousands of already retired and soon-to-retire teachers and public employees will face a long, slow financial crisis as their pensions founder.

Tenant Rights

In Montana, people who rent houses and apartments enjoy a lot of protections against predatory landlords. But not for long. I anticipate wholesale revisions of these protections, to the sole benefit of landlords.

Voting Rights

You will be hearing a lot from Helena this winter about the epidemic of voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots, and with voting in general. This is hogwash. Nonetheless, it will be the rationale for significant voter suppression. Remember, the opponents to this agenda number 11 out of 25 versus 13. That’s not an overwhelming margin, which the people who won are well aware of. We will see many new restrictions on voting aimed at the young, the old, the poor, and the indigenous. Same-day voter registration is toast.

Local Powers

As Brian Schweitzer used to say, “these Republicans”. They talk a good game about how the best government is that which is closest to the people. They don’t mean it. They hate that Bozeman has an ordinance banning discrimination against gay people, or that Missoula tried to enforce background checks on all gun sales in their city. You can expect a raft of legislation to prohibit municipal or county governments from doing all manner of things that they object to.

Going beyond the symbolic, the builders and realtors will have the upper hand, so I expect substantial revisions to land use planning, impact fees, and other nuts and bolts of municipal governance.

And yes, this includes covid. I would not be surprised to see the powers of county Boards of Health to be considerably hampered. You can no doubt work out the consequences yourself.

You can anticipate curtailment of the many state programs that channel Federal and state money into cities and counties. No budget will be left intact.

Administrative Governance

I expect to see significant revisions to the state departments that the Republicans hate most: Revenue and Environmental Quality. Beyond legislative thrashings of their budgets and authority, the governor has large influence on how every department is governed.

Do you recall how state revenues went up substantially under Brian Schweitzer, even though taxes were never raised? An important reason is that the Department of Revenue had been purposefully mismanaged for 16 years. Schweitzer hired a tax genius named, I kid you not, Dan Bucks, who massively increased revenues simply by collecting taxes that had not been paid for many years. Why had they not been paid? Intentional lax management at DOR. Nothing changed except the will to enforce the law.

Those days are coming back. You’ve seen how at the national level our recently diselected President vastly reduced the effectiveness of government by changing the faces at the controls. I anticipate significant reorganization and personnel changes over at Revenue, with the result being declining tax compliance by the big boys.

You can certainly expect the same at DEQ, because keeping our air and water clean and cleaning up mining sites costs a lot of money that large industrial corporations don’t want to pay.

This is the game plan: the various sub-departments, called bureaus, will be reorganized.

Experienced, dedicated, (and most importantly) effective people will be reassigned to powerless roles, or simply eliminated. The word will percolate very quickly: ride for the new brand, or ride on down the road. Outside the government, the various players who pay big taxes and comply with expensive regulations will understand without a word being said that their adherence to the law just got a lot more flexible.

Arts and Culture

The Montana state budget spends small but important funds for the arts. It also leverages important federal funds. All this money flows into arts organizations across the state. Many of our mainstream institutions like museums and symphony orchestras count on this money as an important part of their funding puzzle.

Over the past dozen years, our governors have recognized that art business is real business, and important programs have been developed to help artists be business people. As a result, you can find artists at work all over the state, especially in small communities.

Art is not a priority for our new governing crew. All of this is threatened, to the detriment of our shared cultural life.

The Result

None of this is new. None of this is speculation. The elephant team in the Legislature has been making these threats and introducing these bills for years.

We already know how it will work out.

We need only look at the excellent demonstration of the results of this plan, down the road in Kansas. In 2012, Kansas implemented the Kansas Experiment, which started with massive tax cuts, making the usual promises of instant economic growth. Five years later, Kansas schools, colleges, and public works were a disaster. Economic growth was way behind the rest of the country. The entire state was poorer, sicker, and less educated. They overturned it in 2017, but it will take decades to recover.

This program adds to the miseries of the last and least among us: the old, the poor, the sick, the marginalized. It redistributes money into the pockets of the well off. It demonstrably does not create a massive outbreak of economic activity or new jobs.

These results are neither a mistake nor an unfortunate side effect. They are the purpose. Our new governing class despises government. They detest the notion that we the people, acting through our government, might actually make our lives better. They believe that the few who own the country have the God-given right to govern it. This is the oldest political conflict in America: the wealthy few and their loyal acolytes against the rest of us. This battle is now once again commenced.

An angry reactionary minority now has control of our state government.

Many of the 13 out of 25 who voted this in will be wondering what the hell is happening, and regretting it when it becomes clear.

This is coming to you, Montana. You’ve really stepped in it now. And there is no stopping it without large, organized, and very loud opposition. It has to ramp up immediately. Because “these Republicans” have a dead simple idea of compromise. For them, compromise is when you do what they say.

Brady Wiseman was a member of the Montana House of Representatives from 2005–2010. He made thousands of hours of field observations in Helena of politicians in the wild.

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