HELENA, Mont. - Montanans from Helena and across the state assembled at the State Capitol here on President's Day to reject the ultra-right state legislature's assault on working families.
Among what are considered the worst pieces of legislation to be introduced this session are bills to privatize veterans' homes, roll back public employee salaries to 2005 levels, criminalize abortion and prohibit its coverage by insurance plans, cap state employee salaries, slash budgets for the Montana university system, gut state environmental law, repeal incentives for renewable energy - and even declare global climate change to be beneficial for the state.
With Republicans in Montana's legislative bodies going to town on the State budget with what the protestor's categorize as reckless abandon, it would be easy to assume that the state was in the midst of a financial crisis. However, Montana has over $350 billion in the bank, a luxury previous governments secured by not deflating surpluses through handouts for the rich. Furthermore, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has proposed a budget that maintains funding levels for public programs and still allows the government to live within its means.
The Republican attack on Montanans brought people from all walks of life, and from all around the state, to Helena, beginning with an assembly on the Capitol lawn under a banner reading "For love of Montana", and featuring a spirited crowd of environmental activists. Conservationists, hunters, families and concerned citizens of all types gathered to join in song and discussion within view of the lawmakers who were debating these bills.
Speakers denounced what they say is a false dichotomy presented by the Republican-led state House and Senate, whose ultra-right members are attempting to pose environmental regulation, green energy investment and conservation as threats to job creation.
"It doesn't have to be one way or the other," argued Ed Gulick, architect from Billings and chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, as he explained how projects to make buildings more energy efficient have driven demand for workers in various trades. "We can have jobs where our people live, in our towns and cities. Jobs for general contractors, carpenters, window installers, insulation installers, architects, engineers, electricians, plumbers."
As the rally drew to a close, busloads of public employees and their allies began to gather before the Capitol building steps for another rally against the Republicans' cuts. Throughout the afternoon, speakers underscored the importance of public employees.
"When the alarm bells ring today in Billings, Butte, Great Falls or Helena, firefighters suit up, they go out the door, never knowing what they'll face. We exhibit courage," said firefighter Joe Sands. "For those of you who work in the classroom, it takes courage to stand up and say, 'Trust me to educate your youth.' Whatever the job, public employees have the courage to stand up, put our differences aside, and make Montana a better place to live and thrive."
Standing in solidarity were Montana public university students who met earlier in the day to lobby the legislature against the cuts. Students fear that these measures will drive up tuition and class sizes, and lower the quality of education in Montana as well as their ability to stay in the state once they graduate. Student lobbyist leader Jen Gursky drove the message home, saying, "I can't stay in Montana and work and pay off my student loans. Thirty years ago, when my Montana parents attended the University of Montana, returning home to Polson was accessible to them. I fear that that same option is not accessible to me."
Aware that people around the globe were staging similar protests to the ones they had organized, many at the demonstrations saw the parallels between the struggle in Montana and that in Wisconsin, as well as recent popular uprisings worldwide. Protestors carried signs comparing Helena to Madison and Cairo, and circulated petitions through the crowd in support of the weeklong occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin.
While it was rumored that local tea party groups would be holding a counter-rally, they had little to show for any efforts made to do so. Their presence on the hill was limited to a pair of individuals who spent most of the day loitering inside the Capitol building, only to emerge infrequently and make a lap through the crowd while heckling speakers and demonstrators.
Concluding their orations, speakers urged participants into the Capitol building to bring the demonstrations to the legislators, who were in session. Joining the mob of citizens entering the halls were supporters of reproductive rights groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, who came to demonstrate against the anti-choice and anti-women laws coursing their way through the House and Senate.
Representative Edie McClafferty of Butte had encouraging words for the protestors about to enter the building. "The state budget is not just about a bunch of numbers. The state budget is about people's lives," she said. "It's not too late. We can reverse the cuts, but we need your help."
Image: PW/Jesse Jack