Montana Viewpoint


There are political acts that rise above politics. We need more of them.

May 29, 2006

A while back I came across an exceptionally insightful quote by James Madison, one of the principal authors of the United States Constitution. He wrote:

“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”

These guys weren’t thinking about the next election; they were writing a set of guidelines for government that they hoped would work for generations to come.

Taking the long view is not generally done in politics today. I suppose that’s mostly because politicians and political parties are more concerned about their prospects in the next election rather than their place in history.

We are now in that odious part of the election cycle where bills will be introduced in Congress and state legislatures that have no real meaning other than to advance a particular political party’s chances of election victory by forcing members of the other party to either vote against their conscience or suffer the consequences.

Well, I despise those tactics, so instead of dwelling on the negative, I want to write about some of the great moments and great politicians which shaped our future for long years to come; acts of foresight and selflessness.

In Montana, I think the two most important events were the writing of the 1972 Constitution and the creation of the Coal Tax Trust Fund.

The 1972 Montana Constitution was written by Montana citizens. The delegates were elected by popular vote, and elected officials were ineligible to run.

The proceedings of that convention illustrate the sense of duty the delegates possessed. There were far more Democrats than Republicans elected as delegates, and normal procedure would have been for them to be seated by party. But one of the first motions made at the convention, by Chet Blaylock, a Democrat from Laurel, was to be seated in alphabetical order; Republicans and Democrats intermingled.

By that single motion a sense of unity and common purpose was established among the delegates, and mitigated the tensions that party politics might have led to.

The resulting constitution gave Montanans more enumerated rights than the United States Constitution gives Americans; the Right to Individual Dignity, the Right to Privacy, the Right to participate in government proceedings and to examine government documents, and the Rights of children, among others.

The Coal Tax Trust fund was the creation of Senator Tom Towe, from Billings. It was 1975, the beginning of the boom in Montana’s coal country, and coal was being mined and shipped out of state in increasing quantities each year. Towe held that the coal and minerals under the ground were part of our birthright, and that once mined, they were gone forever. He imposed a 30% tax on coal, and proposed that the people of Montana create a Constitutional Trust where the money would be deposited.

The question was put on the 1976 ballot by the Montana Legislature, and approved by 70% of Montana voters.

“It is to compensate future generations for the loss of a depletable resource,” Towe said.

The money in the Trust was to remain untouched unless an appropriation was agreed to by three quarters of the Legislature. The principal of the Trust was to be invested, with half re-invested in the Trust, and the other half used for state expenditures.

Over time, many changes to the structure of the Trust have occurred, but today the Trust earns more money in investment income than it receives from the coal tax itself, and the total amount of investment income since the beginning of the Trust is just about equals the amount of money in the Trust itself—$700 million; $700 million that Montana citizens have not had to pay in taxes.

These, and other acts of foresight are what has made America and Montana great, and it’s time—past time—that we got back to worrying about the generations to come and not our own selfish political interests.

“…never was an assembly of men charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them, than were the members of the Federal [Constitutional] Convention of 1787.”
  ~ James Madison


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