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Know the West

Bipartisan weather emerges in the Northern Rockies


Blustery winds that tear at your exposed skin and clothing day after day, keeping you on edge. Outbursts of bone-rattling thunder and lightning strikes on top of you, followed by pounding rain and barrages of hailstones that force everyone to scurry for cover. Mud galore. But occasionally, through magical openings in the clouds, sunlight beams down and bestows a heart-warming glow on everything.

That's the kind of weather we've had in Montana this spring. It’s not all that different from the kind of politics we’ve been having, too. I hope this political trend can be a model for the whole nation.

No matter where you are, a good model is needed right now. Who doesn't lament the bad weather in our governance, whether we're talking Congress or state and local governments? Like a thunderstorm, most political arguments contain no hint of compromise, no respect for the opposing point of view. Ignorance -- of science and economics and other realities -- is frequently celebrated. The stormy posturing generates new crises without solving older ones and makes actual progress nearly impossible.

In Montana, the main parties, Democrats and Republicans, have traded control of the state government back-and-forth for decades -- much like what we've seen in Washington, D.C. Montana Democrats have held the governorship since 2005, while arch-conservative, Tea-Partyish Republicans have gained ground in the Legislature. Going into this year's legislative session, it looked like the arch-conservatives would rule. They had challenged moderate Republican legislators in the primaries, defeating some and intimidating others. Their party had an overwhelming advantage, 59-41 in the Montana House of Representatives and 29-21 in the Montana Senate. And yet by the time the Montana Legislature wrapped up its session at the end of April, there were some big accomplishments.

In each chamber, about a dozen moderate Republicans broke ranks and teamed up with the Democrats to pass an expansion of Medicaid. This allows a ton of federal funding -- $5 billion over eight years -- into Montana, and when combined with a bit of state funding it will provide more affordable health care for tens of thousands of needy Montanans.

The same bipartisan allies in Montana also passed a measure that requires better disclosure of the financing for political ads. They also greatly increased funding of services for the mentally ill, and they rejected an extreme gun-rights measure, which would've overruled Montana college administrators and allowed people to carry concealed guns on state campuses.

The arch-conservatives, by their loudness alone, seemed to be the majority in the Legislature, and they opposed all of those measures with the usual over-the-top rhetoric. They got so ticked off by their repeated defeats that toward the end they shot themselves in the foot, so to speak, by rejecting a widely popular attempt to devote $150 million to repairing Montana's essential infrastructure. Many business leaders want to see improvements to state buildings, roads, water and sewer projects, and the dollar total was a compromise on the governor's request for $400 million.

But as a leading no-compromise legislator, Rep. Art Wittich, said, "Frankly, from a conservative standpoint, it (the infrastructure denial) may be the only thing we did in this session. We have virtually lost everything that we came here to accomplish," as the bipartisan allies passed piece after piece of what he called "truly compromised legislation." His terminology is accurate: Look at Montana’s  Medicaid expansion, for instance. It’s the most conservative set-up in the whole country, requiring the needy recipients to pay modest insurance premiums to share the cost. Many eligible Montanans will be hard-pressed to pay the premiums. If that isn't a true compromise, what is?

Montana's bipartisan alliance broke down on some fronts, as the Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, vetoed dozens of bills passed by Republicans, including one that would've set up a task force to study how the state might take over federal lands -- a veto supported by many conservationists. But even on that issue, one of Montana's most prominent Republicans, Congressman Ryan Zinke, sided with conservationists by voting against a similar Republican measure in the U.S. House. The Republican-run U.S. House passed that one, and as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported, "Zinke's stance has made tea partyers in Montana unhappy." Zinke told a group of outdoor-recreation businesses that while he's a conservative, he's also a "reasonable conservationist."

This is exactly the kind of sunny politics we need everywhere.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and is the magazine’s former senior editor.