Cooler heads prevail to kill special session theatrics

September 23, 2022 4:29 am

The grand staircase of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

They say you should “give credit where credit is due” and certainly that applies to Montana’s legislators who turned down the attempt to hold a theatrical pre-election special legislative session only months before the legislature convenes in January. Considering about $1.5 billion in “surplus” tax revenue was at stake, a rushed special session was absolutely the worst thing the legislature could have done.

The so-called “surplus” resulted from the influx of federal funds to help Montanans — and all Americans — get through the extremely difficult fiscal situations resulting from the COVID pandemic. It’s no secret that “business as usual” couldn’t happen due to the variety of measures battling the pandemic required. And despite the howls from the faux fiscal conservatives about the national deficit, rest assured those federal funds were a very welcome life raft for millions of our citizens.

Our people were in need and our government responded. Montana could have decided to not tax those federal relief dollars, but did not do so. They counted it as “income,” which produced additional tax dollars for the state coffers.

Montana’s constitution allows the Legislature to call itself into session with a majority vote of our 150 House and Senate members. It’s pretty clear that those howling about “giving the taxpayers their money back” weren’t really concerned with the efficacy of attempting to distribute such a vast sum equitably in a short special session. Instead, it was a baldfaced attempt to strut across the public stage hoping to buy votes for the upcoming election.

But anyone who has ever experienced legislative special sessions know they are the worst possible ways to make public policy. Even during a regular 90-day legislature, it is very difficult for members of the public to stay abreast of the day-to-day actions, decisions, and votes on matters of great significance to the state, its people, and our future. In a special session the public — you know, the people these legislators are supposed to represent — are virtually excluded from the process due to the compressed timelines.

In Montana’s history, some of the worst public policy decisions have resulted from rushed legislation. While there are many examples, none stand out as injurious to the general public as the Republican-dominated 1999 legislature’s incredible blunder to stuff through a massive utility deregulation bill in the last two weeks of the session.

The very complex 230-page bill severely short-cut normal due process since the legislature had to suspend its own rules to even allow introduction of a late bill. They then had to likewise suspend the rules several more times to bring it from committee to the floor to the second chamber — all long after normal deadlines.

Its rushed passage before the legislature adjourned resulted in impacts Montana’s citizens continue to suffer to this day. The hydroelectric dams consumers paid to build and maintain were sold to an out-of-state corporation, Montana Power Co. stocks crashed to near worthless, pensions were lost, and we went from the lowest cost power in the region to the highest.

Now consider the likely consequences of distributing 1,500 million dollars in a special session with single-party majorities and virtually no opportunity for the public to review or provide feedback on the bills. Chaos would be the appropriate description — not competent governance.

Montanans can be thankful for those legislators who refused to go along with the hair-brained attempt to call a special session. The money isn’t going anywhere. And the January session is just around the corner — when the public can have the opportunity to actually provide considered input to the law-making that so intimately affects all our lives and futures.

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest running columnist.

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