Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Montana Republicans continue their lock on the state legislature

MH dealt with the major Montana races in last Friday's column and with the Montana GOP's shocking sweep of the Public Service Commission on Monday. Today I want to talk about what is (in my estimation) the big prize: the Montana state legislature.

America's Founding Fathers set things up such that the legislature was the most dominant branch of government -- representatives of the people who make the laws. Granted, in the modern imperial era, the executive branch at the federal level grabs a lot of power for itself and simply legislates by regulation and executive order. At the state level, however, governors don't have those kinds of powers -- primarily because states have to balance their budgets (well, except for California, which is our own personal Greece.)

So, in a state like Montana, whichever party controls the legislature has an ability to drive the agenda and to set limitations on what the executive might want to do that the U.S. Congress can only dream about.

And this year, the landslide gains that the GOP made in 2010 were solidified. The GOP lost 7 House seats, meaning that they only have a 61-39 majority there, but posted a net gain of one Senate seat by flipping two seats in the Billings area (one of which we discussed last Friday), yielding a 29-21 majority.

The losses in the House were expected -- all of them occurred in seats that normally the GOP has zero chance of winning. The Montana Democratic Party was so busy spending every resource they had to oust Roy Brown from his Senate seat here in Billings that they forgot to shore up the seats they were supposed to win. Apparently Brown had to be punished and ground into the dirt for having had the temerity to challenge Gov. Schweitzer in the 2008 governor's race -- one would think that Schweitzer's overwhelming win over Brown would have been satisfying enough, but if you think that, you really don't understand how Montana Democrats think. Anyway, Montana Democrats beat Roy Brown, but amusingly, while they were concentrating on one district in Billings, they lost every other competitive race in the state in 2010. Every one of them -- and quite a few that shouldn't have been competitive for them.

So, Democrats won a handful of those back (those seats were the equivalent of Democrats winning Congressional seats in downtown Chicago or San Fransisco.) Meanwhile, in the all-important state Senate (where the buck stops, regardless of which party controls the House), Republicans padded their already comfortable majority. A good working majority requires 27 seats, since with 26, you can never have a single defection. With every additional seat, the ability of Senators on either side of the spectrum to hold the majority hostage rapidly diminishes.

These are not veto-proof majorities, but many of the important things that the GOP-controlled legislature needs to do involve holding the line -- no raising taxes, no out-of-control spending, no funding for additional state employees, etc.

Governor Schweitzer was combative when control of the legislature was narrow or divided, but was fairly quiescent when faced with these kinds of majorities, and I don't expect that a Gov. Bullock will be any different. The reality is that a Governor Rick Hill would have been in a position to deliver on his campaign promises, but a Gov. Bullock won't -- not for the next two years.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about these majorities is something that was a fact of life from 2004 through 2010. These are districts that were gerrymandered with active collaboration between the Montana Supreme Court and the Montana Democratic Party in order to maximize Democratic performance. The surprise was that the Montana GOP, through sheer willpower at times, managed to learn to beat the odds and fight to achieve parity until the 2010 GOP wave election happened. Montana Democrats never got the comfortable control of the state legislature that they expected when they were handed the "nonpartisan" redistricting committee after the 2000 census.

And having overplayed its hand, the Montana Supreme Court didn't dare to do something as baldfaced again. The new districts formed after the 2010 census should be more rational and less gerrymandered, meaning that Republicans should (barring self-destructive behavior, which is never out of the question with Republicans) be able to maintain comfortable majorities for another decade.

May they use the coming session wisely, and may they continue to recruit the kind of high-quality candidates that were necessary in order to fight for survival in the face of the gerrymandered districts that shaped the course of the legislature over the past decade.


Ed Kemmick said...

I enjoyed your reasoned analysis and your reasonable perspective, as always, but here we are, two months before the Legislature even convenes and a Republican legislator has asked to be paid in gold or silver, and there is talk of secession in the air. I think your remark about self-destruction might be the most prescient of all.

Brad Anderson said...

Ha! I have been busy trying to shoot deer and pheasants this week, so haven't followed the festivities very closely. The talk of secession reminds me a bit of small-town councils in California and New England passing solemn resolutions requiring the closure of Guantanamo Bay or unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Remember, btw, that John Calhoun learned his secessionist theories from his teachers while at school in New England, which was itself a hotbed of secessionist fervor during the Mexican-American War (something those state conveniently forgot.) So such talk is ultimately the fault of those dang northeasterners...

The interesting thing about big majorities is that mini-opposition parties develop who then preen for whoever they imagine their constituency to be. Heavily Democratic states do the same thing, with the looniest leftward folks safely able to posture away while the more moderate folks actually run things.

As to being paid in gold or silver, why not? Some of them deserve to be paid in chickens or turkeys. Some of the kind but fiscally clueless ones should be paid in state lullabies and state muffins.

Things could really get creative here -- I personally think that legislators who want to spend money on frivolous pet projects should have their pay go directly to those things, and be given a nice engraved certificate honoring their personal contributions to their treasured causes.