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More perspectives on Montana's economy.

Dorothy Bradley lost last fall's close gubinatorial election. We interviewed then governor-elect Marc Racicot and presented his views in the Winter 1992 Quarterly; herewith are Ms. Bradley's.

An old insightful prayer asks, "Give me courage to help change the things I can, patience to accept that which I cannot, and wisdom to know the difference."

This should be the motto of Montana's political leaders, the core philosophy underlying "reinventing government," and a mandate for all communication between politicians and their constituents.

It is not useful to dwell on what's wrong with Montana. But having just bellowed a collective "no" to tax reform, it is timely, as we carve out our next course, to do some self-examination. I intend in this article to generate constructive and discussable suggestions to help us figure out who we are and what we want to be in the year 2000. We should no longer fool ourselves by believing we can make economic progress without solving other problems--such as our crumbling infrastructure, our deteriorating education system, and a governing system that people believe is unresponsive to their needs. All these problems are intertwined, and must be addressed together.

Like all Montanans, I have strong ideas about who we want to be, and even stronger ones about who we don't want to be. I'm concerned that we're drifting ever faster toward who we don't want to be.

We don't want our state to be polluted or poor. We don't want undue conflict shredding the fabric of our state. We don't want to be without collective or individual potential. We don't want to be ignored. We don't want the new global economy to pass us by.

We do want to be healthy and safe. We want Montana's citizens to enjoy fostering their own and their communities' economic potential.

And I want Montana to be a place where people identify with and respect their government. I want Montana to be a place where people sit down together and work out differences.

The Shining Era

Montanans respected their government in the 1970s. We may have been the most spirited state in the USA. A healthy economy no doubt helped our outlook. But I point to the 1970s as a particularly shining era because people linked arms with their government. We Montanans felt constricted by outdated rules, so we modernized our state constitution and local governments. We crowded into the capitol to shape our laws. As citizens we were innovative, energetic, respectful, and pushy. At the same time, we debated our future with admirable deliberation.

Montana received national acclaim in the 1970s, and we were very proud of ourselves. Not just because of the god-given beauty of our landscape, but because our human efforts were creating a citizenry to match it.

The Big Pout

Today we are not leading national thought or receiving national recognition. We are not proud. We have neither a collective vision nor a respected forum where we can create one.

Why should we be surprised by sagging government morale? Instead of receiving incentives to produce and innovate, government's career workers are being rewarded to simply get out of the way. Local governments are being straight-jacketed so they cannot appropriately respond to needs.

Perplexed leaders tend to perpetuate the unforgivable promise of more for less. Then they can't produce it. Citizen cynicism grows. And we come full circle.

This cycle is not reinventing government, and we all know it.

I interpret the June 8 tax vote not so much as people hating a sales tax as people hating government. No Montanan really thinks ours is a good tax system, either in terms of fairness or the ability to create jobs. Collectively, we're pouting. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

Hence, "Montanans for Better Government," which has exploited a glitch in the state constitution, is, in my opinion, a naive, anachronistic, and shamefully misleading movement. The signatures will have been counted by the time this article sees print. But allow me one quick example of the simplistic thinking promoted by this group--and a suggestion for dealing with it.

My teaching experience shows why a quick switch to a voucher system for private schooling is not workable. Our small rural public school in Ashland (Montana has many like it) is right next door to a private school. The public school, where I've been teaching, had to assume responsibility for a disproportionately large special education program because the private school simply chose not to. The one-to-one student-teacher ratio is expensive. It is also effective. It is also the law. To save dollars on this already tightly budgeted school will take more than a voucher.

My suggestion? According to Montana law, legislative appropriations cannot be suspended by citizen petitions. Therefore, the governor should call a two-day special session, repeal the law this group's petitions suspend, pass it again with an appropriation, adjourn, and get on with business. The Montanans for Better Government, like all Montanans who want better government, can put their ideas into proper legislative format and have them introduced for thorough debate in 1995.

Blueprint for Better Years

Montana needs a blueprint for the year 2000. What might be included in that blueprint? Here's what I think.

First, we need to recognize and truly understand what is happening out there in the real world, particularly in economic terms. Next, we need to decide whether we want to be a competitive player in that world, or be a dropout. Third, we need a plan of action to make Montana the land of opportunity--or at least to open doors for the entrepreneurial among us. And finally, we must bring government home to the people.

The Real World

The world economy is rapidly transforming. It's critical for all of us, particularly policy-makers, to understand that fact. We are facing and will continue to face changes in the world economy as huge and ubiquitous as industrialization wrought many years ago.

I believe that computers will be to the printing press what wheels were to the Stone Age. The cornerstones of our new knowledge-based economy are information itself and the technology that processes it; adding value to products and resources offers the premier path to prosperity. Thus, to be a player in the economic revolution, we must have access to the best data and state-of-the-art technology. Moreover, we must be educated, we must be modern, and we must be as well-conditioned as a decathlon athlete.

Luckily, this kind of economic shift is made for Montana. The new paradigm is adaptable to open spaces, small towns, unpredictable climates, and hardworking people. It's also pristine. The more daunting side of the new paradigm is that a player must invest in two absolutely key resources: education and modernization.

Do we want to be a competitive player in the new economy? I am convinced a majority of Montanans would say yes. How else can we create the good jobs we all know the state needs?

Competitiveness

First, Montana needs fiscal stability. Business needs financial predictability and continuity to survive. And despite a resounding defeat on the June 8 tax vote, we cannot afford to drop the debate. Let's admit it--we are in a fiscal crisis. Our tax system is a mess and our budget is built on shifting sand. Good jobs don't grow in such a climate. (Neither will they grow with a gutted infrastructure, which would follow from the "Better Government" proposals.)

Second, involve the public. Montanans have good ideas; we need a clearinghouse for them, a center for economic brainstorming. Rejuvenating the Governor's Council on Economic Development would provide a public forum for business, education, and government to work as partners at creating good jobs for Montanans.

Third, we must deal squarely with education reform. Let's acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: Many Montanans no longer believe education, particularly higher education, is responsive to their needs. This is the perfect time, then, to restructure and modernize the system, and to decide how we'll pay for it. Most important of all, we must define our expectations. In the age of information and knowledge, Montana cannot afford a non-educated citizenry.

College must be affordable. For those not college-bound, apprenticeship programs should be innovative and available. For welfare recipients, education should be not only an opportunity, but a requirement. We must make lifelong education and training available to help workers improve their skills, their products, and their quality of life.

Telecommunications can help make vital information more accessible to all corners of the state. We must support research that finds new solutions to our problems, and new processes, new techniques, new kinds of value to add on to our resources. Education equipment must be modern, for there is no sense in teaching multiplication tables when the rest of the world is into high tech calculators.

Moreover, we must get used to the idea that a healthy infrastructure translates into advanced technology capabilities just as much as it translates into roads and bridges -- and the quicker the better. This idea will take some consciousness-raising, especially when you realize that the last legislature boosted asphalt expenditures by 35 percent, while education funding got absolutely hammered.

Fourth, Montana's economic development programs must be reorganized. Past programs have been beneficial, but have become too centralized and bureaucratic--with too much in Helena, and too little in Glendive. The Helena bureaucracy hasn't done enough to create a partnership with local economic development corporations, who know every nuance of a community's strength and weakness.

In partnership structures, state level entities fulfill a "wholesaler" role while private sector and local communities are refiners and "retailers" of economic development. Think-tanks refer to this re-orientation as the "third wave" of economic development. Our state government, for example, could use its resources to leverage private financial participation in investment programs at the community level.

Trust

We've all heard about the trust gap separating people from their government. Here as elsewhere, Montana can't progress until its citizens regain a sense of ownership for their policy-making bodies and elective processes.

Much current public cynicism is directed at "government spending." For the past decade, politicians have been winning elections by decrying waste and fat in government, playing fast and loose with the facts, and delivering shallow messages via 30-second sound bytes. Now the public is believing the message, and reacting furiously. And no wonder. Citizenship hasn't been respected, and we've allowed the whole process to become an expensive circus.

Government leaders must make the first move. They must be more candid about fiscal issues, and trust citizens to deal with the truth. How else does democracy work? We can't turn around cynicism until truth is on the table, and citizens hear it. By the same token, citizens must assume responsibility for understanding and embracing their government.

Granted, some spending is out of control. But contrary to the rhetoric of certain critics, neither Montana's general state government structures nor its education system is on a feeding frenzy. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Montana's higher education expenditures have remained almost flat for two decades. Furthermore, over the past nine years when inflation rose only 39 percent, mandatory tuition and fees for students increased a whopping 339 percent. At the very time when it is incumbent on society to provide maximum education, we are dumping the maximum burden on students--and for an arguably lesser product.

It's not education gulping down greater and greater chunks of our general fund, but health care. While there may be no single culprit behind this appetite, we can find solutions. Specifically, we can establish a state health care system which guarantees universal access and controls costs. And we are beginning to design one. The design and implementation of a humane and efficient state health care program undoubtedly will be our number one challenge for reinventing government in 1995.

Can we match our desires with our dollars? Health care will be a test case. If we are disciplined we can do it. But we must start the challenge with tough questions: What do we really want? What are we willing to pay? and toughest of all, What must we give up?

The services we expect from government are not free. Reinventing government isn't a simple matter of cutting spending and/or taxes. Government cannot sponsor big sales on its wares like Safeway or Hennesseys. Rather than getting more for less, we will be getting less for less.

Montana has a $235 million bill for deferred maintenance of the state infrastructure--tragic proof of less for less. We must soon reckon with this fact, or we will wreck the state. Government cannot simply declare bankruptcy, like Braniff Airlines. Under-funded government rots from the inside; and by the time the disease boils to the surface, the damage is so extensive it will take us decades to reverse it.

Made to order for the new economy, Montana is also ripe for the best of old-fashioned politics. With a population of only 800,000, not only do we know our local officials, but we chat with our state legislators at the corner store, and can make a personal appointment with our governor on a week's notice. We need not resort to one-way depersonalized 30-second sound bites. Why not two-way interactive question-and-answer video, a town meeting by TV?

People will fully embrace their government processes only when they collectively feel deeply about their future, and understand their critical role in shaping it. Montanans are never going to be happy bystanders. But given the nature and tradition of our state, we could be heading for an exciting time of public interest, involvement and responsibility.

I've found tremendous gratification contributing to the betterment of society and pouring my heart and soul into a good community cause. Montanans can write a new chapter in the state's history, one where people join hands with politicians in a broader commitment to the well-being of our communities and state. Given candid and imaginative leadership, a caring and focused citizenry, and a closing of the trust gap, Montana could be heading for a great and prosperous second century.
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Title Annotation:The New Energy Economics in Montana & the Region
Author:Bradley, Dorothy
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:2347
Previous Article:The Montana Power Company perspective.
Next Article:The economic impacts of Montana's timber shortage.


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