I read George Ochenski’s (April 29) column recapping the 2013 Legislature. His assumptions, and conclusions, are wrong. An inaccurate opinion column, no matter how often repeated, cannot become true.
What is true is that the Senate Republican caucus elected new leadership, because the majority of the caucus (like many Montanans) was not satisfied with last session’s leadership.
But the new leaders did not isolate the ousted leaders, as Ochenski states. In fact, the old leaders were assigned plum committee chairmanships, and with the flat organization of the state Senate, were very involved in passing their own legislation.
Like every year, there were two caucuses in the Legislature. But instead of the old political parties, the two caucuses became the status quo spenders, and economic reformers. The big spenders were a coalition from both parties. The economic reformers were the majority of Republicans proposing structural change to the entitlement system so that government becomes more efficient, innovative and sustainable in the future, without increasing taxes.
To fix the state employee pension liability, the economic reformers proposed a defined contribution system for new employees, similar to a 401(k) plan, where benefits actually match contributions. To address the state pay plan, the reformers proposed a substantial increase for the lower-wage employees, and those employees (about half) who had not received any increases in the last four years. To address university tuition, the reformers proposed no tuition increases for serious students completing their university studies within five years, while maintaining a C-plus average. On K-12 education funding, the reformers proposed greater parental choice, along with an inflationary increase for public school teachers. Given the Republican majorities in both houses, all of these proposals could have passed. Instead, they were killed by the established interests for spending, including Ochenski’s heroes.
Conversely, the status quo spenders’ pension “fix” appropriated a $90 million pension bailout, required additional contributions by taxpayers twice that of employees, and slightly reduced the cost of living adjustment into the future (which will probably be challenged in court). The status quo spenders’ new state pay plan gives all employees an increase far beyond the inflation rate. The status quo spenders also appropriated $30 million more to the universities so that all students, serious or not, regardless of merit, receive a tuition freeze for the next two years. Finally, the status quo spenders appropriated an increase to K-12 three times the inflation rate, and killed all alternative school choice bills.
Unbelievably, we started the session with a $450 million surplus. After approving a final budget that increased over 13 percent, the crossover coalition would have spent down that surplus to just $180 million in the next two years. Even big-spending Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed many of the bipartisan coalition’s new spending bills.
Ochenski closed his column by applauding an ousted senator who criticized the new Republican leaders for “simply saying no.” However, the most under-represented person in the capitol lobby has always been, unfortunately, the taxpayer. Somebody has to say no. Somebody has to understand that there are limits, and consequences, to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
If they return to the Legislature, the status quo spenders could save us a lot of time if they admitted their “management” philosophy simply requires all the recipients of government funds to request their amount from Helena, and one state economist then adjusts the tax rates to meet the anticipated revenue. Presto. No more “simply saying no.” But pity the poor taxpayer.
Ochenski, we need more economic reformers in future legislatures, not less.
Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, is Senate Majority Leader in the Montana Legislature.