By Pam Linn


Who sent in the clowns?

As state governments around the country struggled to balance their budgets, I was proud that Montana, my adopted state, had accumulated a surplus. I applauded Gov. Brian Schweitzer for submitting a balanced budget again this year, even as the state faced reduced revenue.

Then our newly elected legislators went to Helena for the biennial session of just a few months and my hopes were dashed. How were these jokers elected?

In a few short weeks, the legislature has become the laughing stock of the country. To say they are ideologically motivated is to miss the point. While the state has long championed states rights over federal law, the House has moved to undo city and county laws that protect the rights of citizens.

HB 516, which cleared its first test in the House on a 60 to 39 vote, would undo Missoula’s ordinance protecting residents from housing and employment discrimination based on “actual or perceived” sexual orientation and gender identity. Would “perceived” include a guy who wears tasseled loafers without socks?

One supporter was quoted as declaring homosexuals are an “abomination of God deserving of death.” This highly discriminatory measure could also override a Bozeman law that protects homosexual and transgender city employees and contractors from discrimination. It targets any local government “ordinance, resolution or policy.”

As if that weren’t enough, the House then moved forward a plan to override a Missoula County initiative (approved in 2006 by 55 percent of county voters) making marijuana crimes the lowest priority for police.

So as far as state Republicans are concerned, the power struggle works both ways. With one hand they quash city and county regulations that don’t fit with their conservative religious views and with the other they “nullify” U.S. law by moving to wrest control of greenhouse gas regulation away from the federal government. Rep. Joe Read’s bill, HB 550 (advanced on a 67 to 33 vote) would forbid EPA rules from being enforced in Montana. At least Read’s earlier attempt to get a floor vote on his proposal that “global warming is a beneficial natural occurrence” failed.

However, House Republicans endorsed nullification of the federal Endangered Species Act in the state by a 61 to 39 vote, disregarding the fact that doing so would cost Montana $1 billion in federal funds, that comes with “strings attached.” Gov. Schweitzer immediately said he would not work outside the Endangered Species Act in his efforts to manage burgeoning wolf populations. But that’s another issue.

And let’s not forget the GOP backed gun bills that contain their own dichotomy. The House approved an expanded concealed carry law allowing people without permits to carry concealed weapons in urban areas. It is already legal to do so in rural areas without permits. HB 271 would allow anyone eligible to obtain a concealed weapon permit to carry without actually applying for the permit. To their credit, several Republican legislators opposed the bill on grounds that it makes it more difficult for law enforcement to determine who can legally carry a concealed weapon.

But the bill’s sponsor is backing other gun-rights measures including allowing weapons in bars and banks, and even in the Capitol, where they are currently prohibited. Another, which would allow the use of silencers while hunting, has already passed the House. A bill that prohibits federal regulation of firearms that are manufactured in Montana would punish authorities who try to enforce federal firearms laws with jail time and fines. I appreciate that gun rights are imbedded in the culture of the West but these go too far.

A measure that would make sheriffs the “supreme authority” in Montana passed out of committee but not before a key provision requiring federal officials to get written permission from sheriffs before making an arrest, search or seizure was yanked. The “Sheriffs First” bill is now on its way to the Senate.

While the GOP leadership says spending cuts are its first priority, legislators are wasting money drafting, debating and rewriting frivolous laws that have little chance of passing the Senate or avoiding the governor’s veto pen. Schweitzer has gone so far as to order a branding iron that spells VETO.

The first half of the 90-day legislative session has been wasted on idiotic bills doomed to languish in the Capitol dustbin. Probably the most inane is the “Code of the West,” a mishmash of old nonsense about western values of the past two centuries. These yahoos were elected with Tea Party support to reduce government intrusion and reduce spending.

But instead of cutting funds for badly needed services, they might close a few creative loopholes for big corporations and the very wealthy. Just a thought.

Anyway, I’d like to go back to feeling proud of my adopted state and secure in the strength of its leadership. With luck, the second act will be more productive than the first and Montana’s legislature will no longer be seen as a parade of clowns.