Thursday, April 20, 2017

Swiss Cheese

Not for the first time, Fred Thomas is about to make my head explode.

In a YPR interview with Chuck Johnson yesterday, Thomas* suggested that in order to wind up the current legislative session, he (and his caucus, one presumes) need to strike a deal with Governor Steve Bullock. The way it’s supposed to work, the Republicans will throw their support behind an infrastructure bonding bill - which Bullock really wants -  if the Governor will back a bunch of selective tax cuts – which the Republicans really want. Of course it’s not just Republican legislators who like these tax cuts. The beneficiaries – international corporations who shield their Montana profits from taxation, high income venture capitalists, telecommunications companies, high rollers who promise to build data centers, companies that are required (oh, the outrage of it!) to install pollution control equipment – also think they are pretty peachy.

What I don’t get is how Thomas can keep a straight face when he proposes a deal like this and then claim, in the same breath, to be fiscally responsible. What we’re gonna do, apparently, is swallow hard and borrow a bunch of money, and then take a big bite out of the future revenue stream we need to pay the money back! How does that compute? And if we are going to be building infrastructure with the money we borrow, why in God’s green earth shouldn’t all these folks agitating for tax breaks help pay for it?

Thomas, bred-in-the-bone supply-sider that he is, will no doubt tell you that these tax cuts will more than pay for themselves! That's because if we offer a tidy "incentive" to these footloose outfits, they swear they'll come to Montana. And if we don't, they’ll go somewhere else. The way Thomas puts it, we need to make Montana “competitive” so they’ll set up shop here. And we know that because they tell us so, over and over again.

When, if ever, will we learn that these guys dangle the same bag of gold in front of the noses of every state legislature in the country? When, if ever, will we learn than when the race to the bottom is finished, we’ll end up with a tax system with more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese, and nothing to show for it?

When, if ever, will we learn that if these guys do end up in Montana, they’ll be demanding not just infrastructure, but police and fire protection and an educated work force and freedom from environmental regulation and subsidized air fares and even more tax cuts?

When, if ever, will we realize that we are dealing with people that are telling us, in so many words, that they are willing to do business in Montana only if they don’t have to pay the same taxes the rest of us poor schmucks do?

When, if ever, will we realize that good tax policy means defending the interests of all the people and businesses that are already here and committed to Montana, who get up every day, send their kids to school, go to work and pay their taxes without complaint and without looking for a handout?

* For those of you not familiar with Treasure State politics, Thomas is the Republican majority leader in the Montana Senate. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Opportunity Knocks

On Monday, when we took up Sen. Jennifer Fielder’s bill creating a constitutional right to fish, hunt and trap, I had that familiar, sinking feeling that the Montana Senate had once again given up on logic for the day.*

The idea is lunatic enough as it is – after all, fishing, hunting and trapping are simply pastimes enjoyed by a minority of the population and in that sense no more worthy of constitutional protection than canoeing or skiing or drinking beer or crocheting or … well, you get the idea.  But then Sen. Fred Thomas doubled down on this foolishness by rising to his feet, voice trembling with righteous indignation, to insist that we had to pass this bill because our “rights are under attack.” I don’t know, but it seems to me that if the bill creates rights that we don’t currently have, it’s hard to see how they’re already under attack.** 

What Fielder and her pals were doing here was protecting their own interests by claiming a right that doesn’t really exist. They want access to public lands, resources and wildlife for their own benefit, and they resent the fact that, particularly in the case of trapping, there are other Montanans who dispute how those lands should be used and how that wildlife should be treated. What better way is there to prevail in that kind of dispute than to claim some imaginary right to do whatever you want, and attack your opponents for suppressing that right?

But Fielder was in something of a quandary when she proposed to create a right and in the same breath assert she already had it. She tried to get out of the mess by claiming that all she was doing was “clarifying” what the voters intended when they added the hunting and fishing provision to the Montana constitution in 2004. You can read that provision (Article IX,Section 7) for yourself, but since all it says is that the opportunity to harvest fish and game is to be forever preserved, you’ll probably be hard pressed to conclude that – oops! – what we really meant was that there’s a right to trap.

Sen. Jed Hinkle, by the way, made a big deal out of that opportunity language. Why, he claimed, we don’t even know what the term means. It can’t be found in a legal dictionary! So when we protected the opportunity to hunt and fish, Hinkle figures, we must have really meant the right to hunt and fish and trap. This linguistic legerdemain might have been a little more plausible if, in his closing comments, Hinkle hadn’t shot himself in the foot by noting that with this bill we had – wait for it – a “great opportunity” to define that most obscure of words: opportunity!

Fielder’s bill to amend the Constitution got out of the Senate with 30 votes aye (all Republican) and 20 votes no (18 Democrats and 2 Republicans).**  It takes the aye votes of 100 legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, so the bill needs 70 votes in the House to move forward, and that probably ain’t going to happen. But you might just give your representative a little nudge to make sure it doesn’t. Opportunity knocks.

*You can listen to the whole sorry debate here.

**Technically, the bill doesn’t actually create a right to fish, hunt and trap. Rather, it asks the voters to put that right into the Montana constitution.

***You can check out how your senator voted here.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Mindless Syllogism

It seems like every time I’ve turned on the television recently, or clicked on an on-line link, I’ve been subjected to House Speaker Austin Knutsen’s repeated video entreaties to call Sen. Tester and insist that he confirm Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Unless you’ve been in a coma or unplugged from the internet, you too have probably seen the Knutsen video. But in case you haven’t, here it is:

Now, admittedly – and this is particularly true in the era of Donald Trump – when it comes to political advertising, tweeting and the like, we can’t expect much in the way of logic or respect for the facts. But I figure that if Knutsen is going to beat us on the head with the same message over and over again, which presumably means he thinks he’s got something worthwhile to say, he’s fair game for a little critical deconstruction. Here then, verbatim, is Knutsen’s pitch:

I’m Montana House Speaker Austin Knutsen. I know what it’s like to fight against Washington’s War on the West.  That’s why we need Judge Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. A judge who will interpret the law, not make the law.

The Senate must confirm the President’s nominee. Senator Daines is supporting Judge Gorsuch, but Senator Tester, what’s he waiting for? Call Senator Tester and tell him it’s time to confirm Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Nobody, not even Knutsen himself, could possibly regard this statement, taken at face value, as anything other than absurd. Whether or not we need Judge Gorsuch is an open question, but surely the answer to it doesn’t depend on what Austin Knutsen does or doesn’t know. If Knutsen had stayed home in Culbertson tending to his law practice and had never become familiar with “Washington’s War on the West,” would we not need Judge Gorsuch? Is that what he's telling us?

Well of course not. He’s offering us this ridiculous non-sequitur because as lame as it is, it’s better that the mindless syllogism it’s attempting to cover for. That, apparently, goes something like this.

There is some undefined thing called Washington’s War on the West which is inimical to our (read Tester’s constituents’) interests.

There are laws that would protect these interests from Washington's assault if they were properly upheld.

These laws will be upheld if the Supreme Court is populated by justices who “interpret the law, not make the law.”

Judge Gorsuch will be such a justice.

Ergo, Sen. Tester should support the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch.

While the logic in this line of reasoning makes sense, the problem is with the premises, all of which lie somewhere between being at best arguable and at worst figments of Knutsen’s fevered imagination. So really, it's best not to lay out the argument at all. Just stick to the illogical soundbites.

When it comes to Knutsen’s question – what is Sen. Tester waiting for? – the answer is really pretty simple. As Knutsen says, senators “must confirm the President’s nominee.” Presumably, in doing that, we would like them to know who they are dealing with. Tester recognizes that there is a lot more involved in confirming Gorsuch than discovering his views on the War on the West, whatever that may be. There’s corporate involvement in elections, clean air and clean water, women’s health care, and the sovereignty of tribal nations, for example. Here’s a link to Tester talking about his meeting with Gorsuch on those very issues.

So, Speaker Knutsen, what’s delaying Sen. Tester is the need to act with due diligence, and we should all be glad that’s true. It’s something you might recommend to Sen. Daines, who apparently wouldn’t recognize it if it slapped him upside the head. He certainly didn’t think it was necessary as long as the nomination came from Donald Trump, and when Barak Obama nominated Merrick Garland, he refused to even consider it.