By Ron VandenBoom
I heard somebody the other day refer to the 57th Legislature as a modern day Titanic heading for the iceberg with a full crew of Republicans on board.
The point of this colorful little metaphor was that nothing is being done to avoid the iceberg and it will be the Republicans that suffer if they fail to steer the ship of state into safer waters.
Several icebergs are confronting the legislature this session that may or may not be avoidable to the Republicans.
First among them is a looming energy crisis, an alleged shortfall in education funding, and a continuing lack of economic development throughout the state.
In the world of political realities, any one of these could be the ice berg that sinks the politician or political party if it leads to a crisis and the majority political party has chosen to ignore it.
But is this something the Republican majority currently controlling both houses of the 57th Legislature and the governor's office be concerned about?
Well that depends on how you define crisis.
For example, is it a crisis when school programs get cut, teachers get laid off, schools are shut down, districts are consolidated, and class sizes grow as grades are combined?
Is it a crisis when university tuitions go up, faculty are cut, and the schools have to borrow to pay their utility bills?
If your answer is yes, then Montana's educational system may well be in a crisis within the next two years.
Is it a crisis when utility prices rise 200-300 percent, businesses are forced to close or lay off workers, and people on fixed incomes can no longer afford to properly light or heat their homes?
If your answer is yes, then Montana might well be on the verge of a crisis.
Is it a crisis when new businesses refuse to locate in Montana, old businesses close their doors, and existing businesses can't afford to expand?
Is it a crisis when young people have to leave the state to find good jobs, populations decline in the eastern part of the state and agriculture can't turn a profit?
If your answer is yes, then Montana has been in crisis for a number of years.
If the metaphor holds true and within the next two years the U.S.S. Montana strikes an iceberg, the Republicans will appear like the proverbial dance band that kept playing while the ship went down. It's the Republicans that will appear to have ignored reality and allowed the ship to flounder on a sea of tax cuts, deregulation, and worn out philosophical/economic principles.
It's a scenario that's bound to put a cynical smile on the face of any true Democrat that's got a clear view of the radar screen and is aware of the icebergs on the horizon. In fact, they are already beginning to fill the lifeboats and send out the S.O.S.
The only problem with the cynical smile is that they too have to live and work in the iceberg-filled waters, and that's a prospect that's unlikely to make anyone smile.
It will be an interesting campaign none the less that greets the politicians in 2002. The finger pointing has already started and it's the Democrats who seem to have most of the ammunition.
With energy price hikes scheduled to hit residential consumers in June 2002, many voters will be smarting over their utility bills just at the time the campaigns for the next legislature kick off. By that time too, the schools will will have had more than enough time to implement whatever cuts in programs and staff current funding levels have mandated.
Economic indicators around the state are also likely to be down or at least stagnant and unemployment around the state is likely to be on the rise.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said recently that because of additional tax cuts passed by this legislature, budget projections for the 2003 legislative session show a $158 million shortfall before the session even begins.
It's certainly possible that an economic boom will hit Montana in the next year or so and generate large increases in state revenue or that Gov. Judy Martz will reverse her "no new taxes" pledge and increase the state's net income. It's also possible the voters will approve higher bed taxes, rental car taxes, or other taxes but I doubt it.
From the standpoint of a reporter, the next two years will make good copy. From the standpoint of a resident and taxpayer it's scary.