Montana Viewpoint©
“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.” Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

November 22, 2004

When I saw that Montana Democrats had taken control of the Senate and the Governor’s office for the first time in years, I thought of an old gent I once knew. When a dog would chase his car he would stop in the middle of the road, lean out the window and say, “OK, you caught it, now what are you going to do with it?”

The dogs looked mighty confused at having the unexpected happen, but Democrats had high hopes of winning, are glad to have caught the car, as it were, and have plans on how to drive it. Unfortunately, they haven’t got the whole car quite yet. The House is still in doubt because of a two vote win by Constitutionalist Rick Jore of Ronan which puts the house at 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and one Constitutionalist.

There will be a recount, and things could change, giving the Democrats a 50-50 split in the House. In a tie, the leadership position goes to the party of the Governor, who is a Democrat, so the Democrats would control the House and the entire Legislature. (Ironically, if that happens, the minority position would go to the party of the Lieutenant Governor, who is a Republican—so far.)

In either case, don’t expect big changes. Because controlling Democratic legislators is like herding cats, people used to crack wise that it took 62 House Democrats to make a Democratic majority. With only 50, chances of passing sweeping legislative changes are dim. In a way, that’s good. I believe in making haste slowly. But there are a lot of people out there who can’t wait for changes to happen because of life-threatening illnesses; their needs must be addressed.

Democrats have inherited some enormous problems with costs to match; a court-ordered increase in school funding, a new pay schedule for state employees, and the increased costs of the state assuming the financial burdens of District Courts. That’s just for starters; then comes the usual array of needs and wants that have to be paid attention to as well.

Republicans have said that they have left Democrats with a large budget surplus because of their careful budgeting combined with economic growth spurred by tax cuts. It’s true they have left a surplus, but that’s only half of the legacy; the other half is that after years of postponing important spending decisions and ignoring serious issues; the bills are now coming due. That surplus looks pretty puny by comparison.

Much of that touted surplus, by the way, is due to matters out of the control of state politicians. Higher oil prices have led to increased revenue from severance taxes and royalties, and  Montana’s income tax take has skyrocketed because of federal income tax cuts. I know that doesn’t seem to make sense. It happens because Montanans can deduct their federal income taxes from their Montana income. When federal taxes are lowered, Montanans deductions for federal income tax are lowered, and their Montana taxes increase.

Because of the makeup of the Legislature and caution on the part of Democrats in order to keep their majority in 2006, I believe changes will be made slowly, thoughtfully, and deliberately. Whatever passes the Legislature will have to pass muster with moderates—Democrats and Republicans alike. This will tone down some of the more eager legislation. That’s good. Even though there are plenty of serious problems that need addressing, it’s better to proceed cautiously and studiously.

This past election Montana voters have told us they want a change in the way government is run. That’s a big challenge, but there’s a Chinese saying that a journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step, so let’s get at it, one step at a time.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620