Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost in Transition

So, Erik Iverson is coming home.

The news received precious little attention, even from those who for criticized Denny Rehberg for keeping him on as chief of staff while Erik served as chairman of the Montana GOP.

Perhaps it was the heavy media coverage of the Obama cabinet appointees. Perhaps it was the rush of holiday extravaganzas. Sales galore.

Rehberg's comments regarding Erik's departure were intriguing:

In the press release, Rehberg said, "I greatly appreciate all of Erik's hard work on my behalf and on behalf of our state. It's obvious those efforts have paid off. I wish him the best of luck in the future."

Exactly what Erik's "hard work" yielded to the state (v. himself) are not at all clear. Although Denny says "those efforts have paid off." Should we ask Denny to expalin how they paid off precisely? Perhaps the result is a nice sinecure for Erik.

Erik is back in Montana to work on unspecified projects for Tom Siebel, the zillionaire philanthropist, who has so generously bankrolled the effective Montana Meth Project.

Such a nice story.

Oh, and for those of you concerned about Erik's duties as chair of the GOP?

Not to worry.

He's staying on.

Thank God.

Erik is such an inspiring leader and spokesman for the GOP.

On his watch, the Democrats swept the statewide offices in 2008 for the first time in recent memory. Erik did make some headway in the Legislature: The House has 50 Republicans (v. 50 in 2007) and the Senate has 27 R's (v. 24 in 2007). You may recall that the R's vociferously objected to Sam Kitzenberg changing parties (from R to D) prior to the 2007 session; using the R logic, one could argue the R's had 25 seats in 2007, in which case, the GOP gained a net of exactly 2 seat in 2008.

The R's lost one seat on the 5-member Public Service Commission. {In January, four of the five seats are held by D's.]

Erik's boss (until recently) won another easy victory in November, this one against a dufus, maverick D, who won the D primary and promised not to campaign and, then, actually voted for Denny.

I'll cut Erik some slack on the Kelleher thing.

Fundraising? Through September of this year, the Democratic Party raised $3.4 million to the Iverson juggernaut, that is the Montana GOP, $1.6 million.

So Erik is the guy, either the candidate for Governor or the fellow pulling the strings for Mr. Siebel?

If his track record is any indicator of what lies ahead, this should be fun to watch unfold.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Up In Smoke

You may remember the movie. The opening scene with Strother Martin's monologue:

"When, boy when are you going to get your act together?
Oh good God almighty me.
I think he’s the anti-Christ.
Anthony. I want to talk to you.
Now listen
Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you."

In 2009, Jerry Black, a state senator from Shelby, could well be Anthony. [OK. . . perhaps only in terms of the tight script cited above.]

Seems as though Jerry wants to set the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act on its head.

The public in Montana might be mumbling Martin's words before too much longer.

In 2005, the Legislature got its act togehter and banned smoking in public places starting on October 1 of that year. Because of the uproar from small mom and pop establishments, the ban on smoking in stand alone casinos and bars was delayed until October 1, 2009.

The moms and pops had nearly four and one-half years to prepare for the ban. But, now it seems, they don't want to ban smoking in their places at all. As many as 1,400of these places could be exempted from the ban if Black succeeds.

“I think I have to do this,” Darrell Keck, a steakhouse-lounge-casino owners from, you guessed it, Shelby, said. “I don’t really believe this is a smoking issue. It’s a property rights issue.”

There is the code for the wacko fringe: "property rights issue."

No. We sure wouldn't want to deprive owners of their property rights and patrons of their smoking rights.

Bans?!! We don’t need no stinkin’ bans. Burp.

Keck is quite quotable. The story continues:

Unless the law is changed, Keck predicted it will dramatically affect life in small towns, eliminate some bar and casino jobs, cut state tax revenues and deprive smokers of their rights.

“People don’t go into a bar for their health,” Keck said. “If that were the case, I guess they’d be serving booze at the health clubs.”

Black’s bill draft has fired up the same coalition of public health advocates who helped pass the clean indoor air act in 2005. It includes cancer, lung and heart association groups.

To think the Legislature could be so insensitive. The nerve. Our rural way of life is disappearing and all it wants to do is drive a stake into its heart?

Never mind non-smoking patrons and the employees.

Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)

In a game of chance the other night
Old dame fortune was good and right
The kings and queens they kept on comin' around
Aw, I was hittin' em good and bettin' 'em high
But my bluff didn't work on a certain guy
He kept callin' and layin' his money down
See, he'd raise me then I'd raise him
and I'd say to him buddy ya gotta sink or swim
Finally called me but didn't raise the bet!

--Hmmph! I said Aces Full Pal -- I got you!
He said, "I'll pay up in a minute or two
But right now, i just gotta have another cigarette."

Don't worry. "Old dame fortune" will care for them.

The Montana Tavern Association, to its credit, opposes the effort to undo the good-faith compromise worked out in 2005. At least, Keck is willing to put his money where his mouth is. He has retained Jerry Driscoll and Dennis Iverson (Erik's father) to lobby on behalf of the bill. Price tag? $30,000. $30,000 for a bill that even Black says has little chance of passing. [I can hear Driscoll, a prolific smoker in his own right, laughing all the way to the bank.]

Numerous scientific studies have repeatedly documented the toxicity of second-hand cigarette smoke. One such study right here in the Capitol City in 2003 documented the dramatic drop in heart attacks during a six-month smoking hiatus in public places. Opponents of smoking bans picked at the study, but the study's overall conclusion was correct: There is a clear cause and effect relationship between smoking bans and reduced heart attacks.

The public and its representatives has spoken clearly on this matter. Clean air is about health. Any other characterization is a smoke-screen.

Jerry, aka Anthony, "Don't walk away when I'm talking to you. . . ."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


For those of old enough to remember, there was once a time that we had a nationwide 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Gas lines and gasoline shortages. OPEC.

At Richard Nixon's urging, Congress approved the National Speed Limit Law, which prohibited speeds in excess of 55 mph, in 1974. Even as crude oil prices rose, but gas lines disappeared, in 1987, Congress increased the speed limit to 65 mph. Then, in concert with individual responsibility and personal freedoms sentiment that was running rampant in Congress in the Gingrich days, Congress repealed the Act altogether in 1995 (Crude oil was $17.00 a barrel and regular gasoline cost $1.10/ gallon.) and states were once again allowed to set their own maximum speed limits.

It's safe to say that motorists ignored the speed limit entirely while it was in effect.

You might recall that, when the national law was repealed, Montana had no set maximum, daytime speed limit for the better part of three years. The rule was "reasonable and prudent" and, until the legislature acted to set specific maximum speed limits in 1999, Big Sky County became the laughingstock of the western world. Stories abounded about the United States Autobahn.

Perhaps its time to revive a discussion about the merits of reducing the speed limit, most notably fuel conservation, safety and carbon emissions.

For those who believe we can make the biggest dent in our dependence on foreign sources of crude oil through conservation, reducing the speed limit is one major initiative that could make a huge difference.

For those who say they will do anything to reduce carbon emission so long as it does not harm the economy and competitiveness of the United States in world markets, welcome aboard.

The only real cost here is time, extra time spent driving the vast, open spaces of the Treasure State. Scholars call it 'psychological adjustment.' For us lay people, it's called personal sacrifice.

Let the battle of statistics begin.

Yes, time is worth something. How much?

Yes, slower speed limits appear to conserve fuel. How much?

Consumer Reports tested the effect of higher speeds on gas mileage. David Champion, director of auto testing, found that boosting the highway speed of a 2006 Toyota Camry cut gasoline mileage dramatically:

•55 m.p.h. – 40.3 miles per gallon

•65 m.p.h. – 34.9 miles per gallon

•75 m.p.h. – 29.8 miles per gallon

On a hypothetical 1,900-mile round trip from New York City to Disney World in Florida, the Camry would use 47 gallons of gas at 55 m.p.h.. But at 75 m.p.h., it would burn nearly 64 gallons – a $70 difference.

One of the most amusing arguments against reducing the speed limit is enforcement. With the speed limit at 55 mph, some observers estimated that approximately 4,000 lives a year were spared. 4,000. Evidently, the concern is that there will be a dangerous mix of drivers who obey and drivers who ignore a reduced speed limit. If Montana were to reduce the speed limit with the token $5.00 energy conservation penalty for speeding violations, these concerns are likely well-founded.

Lower speed limits appear to save lives. How many?

There has been no real serious discussion abou this idea in recent times.

Nor is it likely to see that light of day in Helena. After all, although not protected in the constitution like the right to bear arms, driving as fast as one wants to is a sacred right in Montana.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Fighter Still Remains

With 38 new members of the Montana House of Representatives reporting for work in January, it's hard to keep up.

Thirty-eight special.

Gad. That's almost a 40 percent turnover. Just exactly what the term limits bunch wanted.

The GOP selected Scott Sales to lead it. Again.

As Speaker of the House, in terms of quotable material, Sales was unquestionably overshadowed by Mike Lang, the GOP Majority Leader in 2007. We need to know more about what Scott Sales has said, I thought.

With my rather modest Internet skills, here is what came back:

boxer: Scott Sales
Global ID 70504
sex male
birth date 1974-12-08
division light heavyweight
nationality United States
residence Richland, Washington, United States
birth place San Jose, CA, USA
US ID WA042537
won 1 (KO 1) + lost 10 (KO 10) + drawn 0 = 11
rounds boxed 15 : KO% 9.09

And, all along, I thought he retired from a high-tech occupation.

Sales was born in 1974? Hmmmm. Oh well.

Turns out that he's been moonlighting as a light heavy.

Not all that successful. Lost by knock-out, 91 percent of the time.

Wait a minute. Scott can't live in Richland, Washington and serve in Helena.

Oh. There it is. Montana's Scott Sales really is a fighter.

Just after his leadership victory a couple of weeks ago, referring to 2007 session, he said, "Voters knew what we stood for and affirmed what we did."

That gives Republicans the chance to continue to advocate their positions for limited government, lower taxes, family values and personal responsibility, Sales said.

"I think they wanted some balance." He emphasized the need for Republicans to start planning for their next election and told them of a 2010 legislative campaign fundraiser Wednesday night at the Montana Club.

Speaking on November 12, 2008, he concluded his remarks by saying, "The 2010 election begins today."

Now doggone it, Scott.

I thought there was near universal agreement that campaign seasons are already too long. That's a right cross.The 2010 election is on November 2. That 721 days away! [Actually, only 704 counting today.] 704 days of heavy body blows.

The "(v)oters knew what we stood for and affirmed what we did." The "what" he referred to evidently includes family values and personal responsibility.

In 2007, GOP Reps. Scott Boggio, Elsie Artnzen and Harry Clock collectively showed us what personal responsibility was all about one dark March evening. Harry loaned Scott his car. The plates on Harry's car, it seems, were expired. Scott was pulled over and blew a BAC of 0.14. Elsie was helping to navigate at the time. In the true spirit of limited government, there was no need to go to an expensive government program. Rep. Jack Ross, a House GOP member blew BAC of 0.18 of his own in 2006, was available for counseling. And, as a member of the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force, Elsie was able to secure pamphlets decrying the ways of those who imbibe the spirits and then take to the open road. Call in the cut man.

The voters wanted some balance? In 2007, several GOP House members attempted to work with D's to solve the budget impasse. Most of those who "helped" were subsequently tagged as socialists by the fringe-right of the GOP. Three of these moderates, Carol Lambert, Bruce Malcolm and John Ward, lost their primaries earlier this year to right wing ideologues. In January, each will be replaced by a Republican with fringe right credentials. What the voters want and what they get are two very different things. Jab..

Earlier this month, the GOP actually did hold its own in the House. It had 50 seats in 2007. (Remember: Rick Jore belongs to the Constitutional Party.) It has 50 seats in 2009. No arguing that the GOP will move substantially to the right. Balance? Don’t think so. Hook.

On the subject of balance, Sales seems to be borrowing heavily from Tevye [Chaim Topol]. “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition. Because of our tradition, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Without tradition our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." Break!

Recently, Sales summarized his concerns about Bob Bergren, the Speaker-designee, breaking tradition if he names committee chairs and assignments for the 2009 Legislature: "Montana has a distinguished tradition.” Feint.

Despite his conservative leanings, Scott Sales would appear to be the last member of the Legislature to concern himself with tradition. Must be watching too much of that damned movie channel and cluttering up his mind with crazy ideas. Or, did he forget his protective head-gear? Uppercut.

"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
'Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains."

Tough to get up off the canvass when you're knocked out 91 percent of the time.

Winning Ugly

When the 2009 Legislature convenes on Monday, January 5, 2009, fourteen new members of the Montana Senate will be sworn in. 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans.

Seven new Republican faces and what they stand for include:

1. Ryan Zinke (Whitefish)
2. Bruce Tutvedt (Kalispell)
3. Greg Hinkle (Thompson Falls)
4. Rick Ripley (Wolf Creek)
5. John Brenden (Scobey)
6. Taylor Brown (Billings)
7. Debby Barrett (Dillon).

Four have no legislative experience of any kind. Brenden served briefly to fill out the term of Sen. Dennis Nathe, who died in office. Barret and Ripley move over from the House.

Nice people. The kind you would want to have as neighbors.

So far, everything seems fairly benign.

So, just exactly what do these folks want to do?

Permanent property tax relief. Eliminate the business equipment tax. Reduce state spending and the size of state government.

Streamline permitting for natural resources and projects. Stop frivolous lawsuits against industrial-strength projects.

Dig more coal. Drill more oil. In other words, “extract more of our natural resources. But, we’ll be careful doing it. Trust us. And, we’ll make certain Montanans benefit. Really.”



With an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the House, the Senate will have additional leverage if it chooses to wield it.

In every session, the Senate has the upper hand, primarily because it has the final word on the budget, the only action the Legislature is charged to perform under the constitution.

In devising plans to eliminate the business equipment tax altogether [either all at once or by phasing it out], there are several questions that should be asked:

1. Will the Legislature offset the loss of $80.0 million in property tax revenues for school districts, county governments and the University System with state monies?

2. If the answer is yes, will it (a) reduce general spending by that amount [and where?] or (b) simply reduce the projected $250.0 million general fund surplus in the executive budget by the same amount?

3. If the answer is no, how will school districts and county governments in particular cope with the loss of revenues?

4. In eliminating the business equipment tax, will the Legislature be forced to also eliminate or reduce the same type of property taxes paid by centrally assessed taxpayers? If the answer is yes, add another $100.0 million to the price tag.

The state seems be emerging from an extended period (1993 through 2003) where the Legislature systematically underfunded schools. Since 2005, the Legislature has attempted to respond to the deficiencies identified in the so-called 'Sherlock decision.' If actions by the Legislature result in a massive loss of revenue from property taxes paid previously by businesses to schools, will the state be setting itself up for additional litigation? Or weakening its position in ongoing litigation?

As Ross Perot would say, "OK. Now here's the deal." During the hey day of property tax cuts in 1997 and 1999, the burden of property taxes was shifted from large corporations and businesses onto small businesses and homeowners. Depending on how the proposals for the 2009 session are structured, schools will shorted revenues or property taxes paid by homeowners and small businesses will increase.

If the sponsors choose to spend state money to offset the revenue losses, state spending could actually increase above the levels proposed by the executive.

Should be fun to watch the debate.

And, yes. The Governor can always veto bills of these types.

Trying to determine who has the upper hand should make for good theater.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hold that Thought

In addition to the two flagship institutions in Bozeman and Missoula, counting the other units in Havre, Dillon, Billings and Butte, community colleges, colleges of technology and tribal colleges, Montana has a large number of units of higher education.

Some say too many.

Never mind that.

There is a proposal pending before the Board of Regents to add yet another unit, this one in Ravalli County. The Board is set to make a recommendation in early December regarding the advisability of creating another community college to the next legislative session.

If ultimately approved by the 2009 Legislature, Bitterroot Valley Community College would begin operations shortly after the approval.

Last week in Missoula, the Regents had a full-blown presentation and discussion about the proposal. Despite the fact those shepherding the idea did an abysmal job of providing data essential to justify the thing, Bitterrootters flocked to demonstrate their support.

To their credit, by hammer and tongs, the faithful obtained the signatures needed to place the question on the ballot and then won narrow approval in May, 2007.

Yes, sir, they said, Ravalli County taxpayers were prepared to pay a new property tax for a community college.

Oh, yeah?

On November 4, 2008, a mere sixteen days before the Regents meeting, Ravalli County voters resoundingly voted against the 6-mill property tax levy for the University System. Mind you, the vote was whether to continue an existing property tax levy to support the University System. The voters have approved the levy every 10 years since 1948.

11,366 voted ‘no.’

9,342, or 45 percent of those voting, said ‘yes.’

[Statewide the levy approved by nearly 57 percent of those voting.]

Paradoxical? I’d say so.

Then, there's the matter of paying for this new initiative.

State funding for higher education will be tight next session. Just under half of the community colleges’ funding comes from the state If a fourth community college is approved, the pie, which is barely sufficient when currently cut three ways to support the existing community colleges, is likely to be cut into four pieces.

That is unless the Ravalli County delegation works and then actually votes to provide the needed additional funding.

Stoker, Lake, MacLaren, Hawk, Laible and Shockley. Most of these folks, like their constituents believe that the only good government is one that is shrinking.

Not exactly an all-star line-up when it comes to supporting higher ed funding.

The balance of the funding for community colleges comes from tuition and property taxes, above and beyond the 6-mill levy mentioned above.

Facts are stubborn things. K-12 school district property tax levies in Ravalli County are far more likely to fail than they pass.

Just how long do the supporters believe voters will tax themselves for the community college? And, when they decide not to, then what?

So, those of you in Ravalli County are saying: We won't vote to support the University System. We will send legislators to oppose funding for the System and, in the process, weaken the existing institutions. We may not provide our share of the funding for our college.

Sounds like a perfectly reasonable proposition to me.

Good Work if You Can Get It

Verizon Wireless evidently is a good place to work.

The lucky ones end up in television commercials.

The rest? Well, they work in buildings in complexes scattered around the country, doing whatever they do to make certain their subscribers have cell service no matter what the locale.

Some, I guess, peruse their customers accounts.

A few with authorization and others without it.

Barack Obama’s account drew particular interest.

In a statement (issued on November 20, 2008), Verizon Wireless President and CEO Lowell McAdam apologized to Obama and disclosed the breach, saying: "a number of Verizon Wireless employees have, without authorization, accessed and viewed President-elect Barack Obama's personal cell phone account."
He said the account has been inactive for several months and Obama had been using a simple voice flip-phone without email capabilities.
"All employees who have accessed the account _ whether authorized or not _ have been put on immediate leave, with pay," McAdam said. "Employees with legitimate business needs for access will be returned to their positions, while employees who have accessed the account improperly and without legitimate business justification will face appropriate disciplinary action."

The next day an unspecified number of employees were fired

Two observations:

1. The initial punishment for this transgression? McAdam was so outraged that he put the employees in question “on immediate leave, with pay.” So, what does one need to do at Verizon to be fired? In recent months, hundreds of thousands of breadwinners have been put on something called indefinite leave (lay-off) without pay simply for doing their jobs in companies that could not afford them anymore. Each of them could have used time off with pay.

2. When the terminations were announced, the company said it had launched an internal investigation as to whether Obama’s records had only been shared among employees or whether the information had been compromised outside of the company. Now, that’s reassuring. It’s OK to internally share the phone records of the soon-to-be most powerful person in the world?

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Verizon “alerted the appropriate federal law enforcement agencies.” That would be the U.S. Department of Justice, that rock-solid impartial enforcer of laws. The same U.S. Department of Justice that fired politically recalcitrant U.S. Attorneys and screened applicants for internships based on their political preferences.

Fortunately for McAdam, the Department’s phone number was on speed dial. For years, you see, Verizon had shared its customers’ files with the Department without a warrant. No fumbling around with that bulky telephone directory.

All right. So, perhaps Obama is at least partially to blame. After all, last summer he voted to afford telecommunications industry, including Verizon, with retroactive immunity for their illegal snooping and illegal wiretaps. And, when McCain and Palin called him a terrorist, millions of Americans took them seriously, right?

So, is it possible the CSR’s with the GED’s who peeked may have thought that they were just been doing their patriotic duty for GW?

And, McAdam? The man whom Verizon paid over $18.0 million in 2007? And, who helped lobby for immunity for snooping?

He’s still got a job.