Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday roundup and branding -- The Gazette, and beyond...

Constituency accounts: Bills are wending their way through the legislature to regulate "constituency accounts," which started out as a way to constructively spend left-over campaign funds, but which now apparently bring in donations throughout a legislator's term. Advocates of the accounts say that they allow legislators who aren't independently wealthy to provide constituent services, such as travel throughout their districts, and they do have a point.

The alternatives to allowing these funds are either to have lawmakers spend their own money on such things or to have the state provide budgets to legislators for legitimate constituent services.

As many Montanans were reminded last week, when Sen. Max Baucus mailed out an oversized color postcard to his constituents telling about his work to ban all new gas and oil drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front "Prepared, Published, and Mailed at Taxpayer Expense" -- many so-called "constituency services" are little more than taxpayer-funded campaign tools, but without the campaign regulations. Thus, it is perhaps fitting that lawmakers have to come up with this money themselves, rather than having us foot the bill.

One of the proposals is to cap contributions to these accounts at $135. There is some logic to this, since challengers do not have the advantages that incumbents do in having accounts with unrestricted donation amounts. Of course, the real answer is to do away with campaign contribution limitations entirely, since they are a limitation on free-speech, and replace all such restrictions with strict transparency laws. But don't look for that to happen anytime soon.

Gazette Opinion on local "resort tax" option: The Gazette editors think that local voters should be allowed the option of voting for a local-option "resort" sales tax. The big headline here is that Billings is apparently now a resort. Perhaps the editors can point us in the direction of the beaches.

Seriously, though, Montana Headlines would ordinarily be in favor of any kind of local control of taxes, and feelings are still mixed around here. It is no wonder that local and city governments are looking with envy at the projected bulging state coffers, coffers full of income taxes and oil and gas revenue taxes. There is something odd about local governments having to beg the state for tax revenues collected from their own residents using taxation means that they themselves aren't allowed to use.

The flaw in the Gazette's thinking is that they are dismissing comprehensive tax reform because Republicans like state Sen. Jeff Essmann don't have it ready yet. They should have been pushing both parties for such reform all along. If local governments need more money, the state should provide them with more of the income tax windfall rather than spend it on new state projects. This can tide them over until we can come up with a better way of doing taxes in this state. Our guess is that Essmann's plan will be better for Billings than any isolated "resort" sales tax -- which Billings will almost certainly vote down anyway.

Ed Kemmick's City Lights: This piece on the Westboro "Baptist Church" gives information about this group of loonies (or worse) that Montana Headlines had never encountered in (admittedly casual and superficial) scanning of articles that mention them. We learn that nearly all of the group is made up one extended family, that the founder is a disbarred lawyer, and that 10 of his 13 sons are lawyers. Kemmick, who was courageous enough to wade into their website, makes this observation:

I'm still not sure what the Westboro Baptist Church really is. Insanely misguided religious extremists? Maybe, but if anybody can find a shred of genuine religious sentiment on their Web site, let me know.

He goes on to wonder out loud if they are in the business of getting assaulted so they can sue for damages. A not unreasonable speculation.

Montana Headlines has wondered who these folks are, but hasn't been interested enough to research them so far. One thing is certain: if one were to design a group with the goal of making evangelical Christians look bad to both the left and the right (virulent language about gays for the one, disrupting funerals of fallen soldiers for the other), one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more tailor-made group than the Westboro picketers. We've often wondered if they were agents-provocateurs of some sort, since nothing in the farthest reaches of the Baptist religion would produce this. But this new idea -- "follow the money" -- makes the most sense of all, so far.

Stress on Montana National Guard: There's a nice piece in today's Missoulian about the changing role of the Guard in Montana and other states. It is true, as the article says, that a primary role of the Guard is to assist the state in disasters, but actually its primary purpose should be to defend the state against enemies -- foreign and domestic.

As such, there is some value to having the Guard rotate through "real-world" deployments, since there is no substitute for that kind of experience. Still, Montana Headlines does not care for the growing trend of treating the National Guard as just Army or Air Force Reserves under another name.

There is a difference, and anything that pulls the Guard too far away from their primary mission, which is protecting Montana, is not a good thing. We don't think anyone could dispute that this is increasingly what has been happening.

Biased headline of the week:

No, we're not going to pick on the Gazette this time.

A law allowing police officers to stop a car solely because it contains an unrestrained child was voted down in the Montana House. We understand that most newsrooms are disproportionately populated by advocates of the nanny state, but can anyone tell us what they were thinking at the Great Falls Tribune when they gave this title to the AP article about this vote?:

"House kicks teeth out of Montana's child-restraint law"

Yes, that's exactly what the House (with votes that crossed party lines in both directions) had in their hearts when they voted this bill down. "Let's go kick in some teeth!"


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