I’m a Democratic state senator from Montana. We’re outnumbered (32-18). Our counterparts in the state House of Representatives are outnumbered, too (59-41). We’ve had Democratic governors since 2005 and we have a bit of a progressive history—Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf, a pioneer in wilderness and wildlife preservation, and the great Mike Mansfield. But in general things are pretty red around here. We do what we can.
During the 2017 legislature, the Senate’s Republican majority leader derided Democrats for proposing to increase tobacco taxes with heartless disregard for Montana’s low-income smokers. In 2015, he sponsored a bill to cut thousands of Montanans off of food stamps.
Every session, Democrats sponsor good renewable energy legislation. Montana has four coal plants. Two of them will close in five years. The remaining two will close by 2032. Because Democrats set up a coal tax trust fund some years ago, coal income has meant a lot to Montana. However, our state is becoming hotter and dryer. Fires raged across the state this year, hitting agriculture hard and keeping Montanans indoors. Current customers for our energy exports, Oregon and Washington, have set end dates for coal use. Yet, Montana Republicans fight against renewables. They bring community members from coal country to committee hearings who cry about cruel environmentalists who are killing their way of life.
This year, Montana Democrats lost three out of four statewide offices for the first time in a dozen years. In a special election last May, Montana elected Congressman Greg Gianforte, who believes the world is 9,000 years old and who beat up a journalist for asking probing questions. Early mail balloting increases voter turn-out in Montana, but many Montanans believe Gianforte, who attacked the journalist just days before the election, would have lost had Montanans voted only on Election Day, after his shenanigans.
For nearly ten years, national right-to-work groups have infiltrated our politics with dark money (See PBS Frontline’s “Big Sky, Big Money”). Right-wing extremists won elections using illegal, unreported campaign contributions. After campaign laws were reformed and a new commissioner of political practices was appointed by Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, politicians who ran dark money campaigns and refused to repay illegal funds were convicted and heavily fined.
Moderate Republicans were the main target of those illegal campaign funds. They were therefore angry enough to help Democrats pass what some have called the best campaign finance laws in the country. In addition, they helped implement Medicaid expansion, which now provides health insurance for 84,000 Montanans who previously had no coverage.
Since 2009, Montana has kept between $300 and $450 million in the bank at the end of each legislative session. This year, the Republican-dominated legislature pulled a budget gimmick. They adopted a phonily optimistic revenue estimate, then passed a bill that automatically cut 5 percent from state programs if those estimates weren’t met. Now, because of fire costs and low tax receipts, and because Republicans killed the tobacco tax measure, additional cuts are looming.
Here are some of the services that will be lost as a result of this chicanery. By January 2018, case management for disabled people needing support to stay in their own homes will be gone. Early childhood intervention, which dramatically increases the chances that disabled babies and toddlers will become fully participating citizens, will be gone. Case workers for abused children, drug treatment for addicts, group homes to keep people out of institutions, and guard positions in our prisons will all be cut.
The Republican response? They say Governor Bullock should do his job and cut. But they refuse to help find solutions. They won’t help identify cuts, and they won’t consider tax increases the governor proposed during the 2017 legislative session. People making more than $500,000 annually had their taxes reduced ten years ago. One Bullock proposal would have increased their taxes. Republicans said no.
Currently, the governor is traveling the state, meeting with families who will lose services. The Senate Republican majority leader has called the governor’s statewide education efforts “repugnant.” A special legislative session is tentatively being planned for November to raise revenues for this year’s devastating fire costs. Democrats will advocate for more revenue to preserve essential programs. If we are not successful, I expect by next November, Montanans will begin to feel the program cuts and continue to witness the national dysfunction under Republican control.
I predict that in 2018, we’ll get rid of the cruel red majority and elect people who care about their fellow citizens.