The Montana Legislature will convene shortly after the first of the year.
It sounds like a cliche, but the decisions made by the Legislature will affect the state for decades to come.
Lawmakers will debate the future of schools. Should the state move toward charter schools and other alternative forms of school or invest heavily in the public school?
How should the state’s massive budget surplus be spent? Should it be returned to taxpayers? Saved for a rainy day? Or used to fund badly needed social services?
Many believe the state’s infrastructure is in need of repair. Should the state allocate money for building and highway repair?
How should the state prepare itself in case the Bakken oil boom moves out to the west?
Obamacare will change the face of health care in this country. Should Montana take part in the vast expansion of Medicaid?
Should the state impose a ban on texting while driving?
And one can easily think of dozens of other issues that will affect the state, its residents and the children and grandchildren of today’s residents. We look forward to the intelligent, issue-centered debates the Montana Legislature is capable of in its better moments.
But then …
One of Republican Rep. Jerry O'Neil’s first acts after winning re-election was to ask the state to pay him in gold and silver coins because he has no faith in the U.S. dollar.
The Daily Interlake did a story over the weekend. The Associated Press picked it up Monday morning. Politico, the political website, almost immediately did a story, and others in the Washington press corps followed suit.
Here we go again.
Two years ago, the Montana Legislature became the laughingstock of the nation after a series of bills were introduced on the wackiest subjects.
The Montana House debated — and almost passed — a bill to create a gold standard in the state. The United States government violated the Constitution when it left the gold standard, the lawmakers argued. Never mind that the Supreme Court didn’t agree. Never mind that the Montana Legislature has no authority to decide if federal laws are constitutional. Never mind that Montana has no currency to be based on gold. The idea was conceived by a professor who thought it would be a good first step toward secession from the Union.
Now, Montanans are a libertarian bunch, and we love to fight against Washington. Liberals love taking on the federal government on issues such as medical marijuana, assisted suicide and campaign finance. Conservatives do battle with D.C. on land rights, mineral extraction and civil liberties. But zero percent of Montanans favor seceding from the Union.
Then there was birther legislation. Militia legislation. Bills about nullification that an eighth-grade civics student knew was unconstitutional. And all kinds of bills that the Legislature’s own legal staff said were unworkable or unconstitutional.
More than anyone, conservative Republicans, who have a long, rich tradition in Montana, were to blame for the out-of-control nonsense. This was the party of Stan Stephens and Mark Racicot, but its members sat by silently as one lawmaker decried legislation aimed at protecting people from drunken driving as being bad for business.
There is a big difference between fiscal conservatives who believe in limited government, and traditional family values and those who spout off like some fringe folks did two years ago.
Too many conservative Republicans cowered in fear of the fringe two years ago. They humored the wacky by going along with bills they knew would not pass, that Gov. Brian Schweitzer would veto or that the Montana Supreme Court would laugh at and declare unconstitutional.
Some of the fringe met their doom in the Republican primary, Others lost out in the general elections, But a good number will be back.
Conservative Republicans will do a favor for themselves and for Montana if they advise the far right to gag themselves
Instead, conservatives can come up with free-enterprise alternatives to Gov.-elect Steve Bullock’s proposals. They can offer proposals that counter Bullock’s plans and open them up to debate. They should try to solve problems and not make points.
They can put Rep. O’Neil on direct deposit and pay him in good old American currency.
And they can call CNN’s Anderson Cooper and tell him he’ll have to look elsewhere for his Ridicu-list.