Discovering Montana

Gov. MARC RACICOT's State of the State Address to the People of Montana

Helena, January 16, 1997. ( to download text )

Thank you very much. President Aklestad. Speaker Mercer. Members of the Fifty-Fifth Legislature. Fellow elected officers. Mr. Chief Justice and the Honorable members of the Judiciary. Tribal leaders. Lieutenant Governor Martz. Friends and fellow Montanans. And my family. Good evening.

I want to thank Kryss Kuntz, our wonderful signer, for agreeing to have me do the spoken part of her State of the State Address here this evening.

By the grace of God and the People of Montana, it is my honor--and pleasure--to be back here with you in this magnificent chamber tonight where we celebrate together the continuation of our democracy. I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss with you and the People of Montana where we have been, where I believe we ought to be going and what we ought to be doing to get there.

To that end, I intend to depart somewhat from tradition here tonight. I do not intend to provide a long list of accomplishments and a longer list of requests. We have been preparing our budget and legislative program for more than a year. And our elected citizen representatives have been gathered in this historic building now for less than two weeks. Our preparations largely speak for themselves, and there will be scheduled opportunities in coming weeks to discuss each of these plans and proposals, as well as your own, in the great detail they deserve.

We could discuss at length the many positive changes and accomplishments that our mutual efforts together have produced over the last two years. Sweeping, and by all accounts, successful welfare reform, a massive reorganization of the Executive branch, sound financial management, tax relief totaling almost $70 million and the largest infrastructure and highway repair program in our history are a few that come to mind.

There most certainly have been instances of frustration where progress or reform may not have been as rapid or expansive as each of us might have desired. But that is the nature of democracy. And viewed in retrospect, there is a remarkable collective record of achievement. That should greatly inspire all of us to enthusiastically continue our diligent--and I must add patient--efforts to shape and remake a way of life that enriches the legacy we received from our ancestors.

I could recount many success stories I have watched unfold as a product of your service and hard work. There were the very visible and welcome improvements in our Workers' Compensation system, which was losing $200,000 every day for almost 13 years before you charted a new course. Our new welfare initiative, Families Achieving Independence in Montana, will handle caseloads in the next biennium projected to be 30 percent below the 1995 high. That drop translates to a $9.9 million biennial reduction in the Executive Budget. And those savings occur without reducing grant levels, which remain among the average of most Western states.

I must admit being tempted to continue this litany. I am tempted because I think everyone involved--legislators, other elected officials, state employees and our fellow citizens--should be immensely proud of their efforts. They should take heart--and you should take heart--in the notion that we CAN accomplish whatever we set our minds to. As Yogi Berra is said to have said, "Ninety percent of this game is half mental."

But we could not begin to discuss all of the details of our joint progress, nor the complexities and ramifications of a new 1,000-page budget and hundreds of important bills even if we stayed here all night, which I assume most of us would rather not do.

Better, I believe, to invest this brief time together after two years to discuss relatively briefly a new, general direction I think our state should be moving in and some of the steps I recommend we take together to get there.

We start with the articulation of a premise that I think most Montanans already sense lurking in the back of their minds: Everything is changing. Nothing seems to stay the same anymore. As Bill Gates, the computer genius, puts it: "Everything is in a state of flux, including the status quo."

This change touches virtually all aspects of life and everything we do in this country and in this state. There are new forms everywhere, new numbers, new programs for our computers, new faces in our neighborhoods and stores. One day a report says some food causes heart disease; the next day the same food is harmless. Recent callers to Chicago and elsewhere discover there is a new area code for an old city overnight.

Jobs that people thought would be there forever are gone the next morning. We even see that today's criminals and the crimes they commit have changed, often into an awful, senseless unspeakable kind of violence and often committed by those we once thought of as imbued with innocence and incapable of such depravity, our young people.

And these changes seem to come at us more rapidly too, like the snowflakes we see at night now coming at us in the high beams of our pickups and cars. The pace of life and its changing demands seem to move more quickly all the time. We may not feel in control.

The accumulation of such changes, large and little, over time has created a disconcerting sense of social unease among many, a restlessness and lack of inner peace, a fear about the direction of change, the randomness of crime and the seeming unpredictability of life. And, also, perhaps this unease produces a generalized suspicion and resentment often aimed at strangers or large institutions.

A major constant in life is now uncertainty. What we have or had is familiar. What's coming is unknown--and it might not be good. This uncertainty and fear can seriously corrode our innate sense of hope and optimism.

Of course, change is not new in America or Montana. Because it is so seared into my memory and life experience, I often recall the story of my grandfather, who was a very good logging camp cook near Libby. One day huge logging trucks came to the lumber industry. As a result, isolated logging camps were no longer needed. And so, neither were my grandfather's skills as a logging camp cook. Many Montanans--too many--have had this same experience over the decades.

My grandfather's method of protesting the loss of his job to such change was to never learn to drive.....Grandpa's protest did little, in fact, to improve the life of his family or alter the course of human history.

But there is a lesson in this for me that I will never forget. Change is coming. Change is coming quickly. And if we do not adapt to it, if we do not think to see it coming and plan accordingly, if we do not seek to take advantage of the opportunities presented by change, then we all, across Montana, will once again lie down on the tracks of economic and social development and let the train of destiny run over us.

We will, like my grandfather in Libby, forever consign ourselves to seeking rides from others who do have a license to drive, and who DO see change as an opportunity.

Instead of fearing change, I say: The world is changing--thank goodness.

We need no longer be confined by geographic and economic isolation because we are big, far and wide--if we invest in, say, fiber optics, training, telecommunications and technology that leaps around the world in the time it takes to push the ENTER button on a keyboard.

We need no longer be the predictable hostages of unpredictable world prices for ores, woods, grains, livestock--if we invest in, say, our local infrastructure sufficiently to attract investments in processing these resources and manufacturing products right here in Montana. And we can encourage saving for our community's future through endowed philanthropy, which I hope you will favorably consider. Montanans need no longer be infected with that familiar virus of fatalism that sadly corrodes hope and limits expectations.

Change has freed us from the old ways of taking merely the economic crumbs that fall from the national table elsewhere. Fate need no longer be our master. The choice now can be ours, if we are bold and imaginative and as courageous and tough as those ancestors of yours and mine who first came here and succeeded because they endured. Enduring in Montana back then was a colossal accomplishment.

Enduring in Montana today means falling behind. We could give up--and probably get by, too. But that would not seize the moment of opportunity. That would virtually abandon any hope of building our own future, and that of our children, on our own terms. We want a Montana where they--and we--can choose the jobs we want to support our families and the landscape we want to inhabit.

But that kind of positive future packed with opportunity will not happen by chance. I guarantee you. It will take planning and hard work--and a willingness to see things differently and to try things differently.

I believe we ought not to fear failing from trying....We ought instead to fear failing to try.

My assignment tonight is to provide one humble opinion about the State of the State. The state of the state is and has been improving. But the state of the state is not yet as great as it can be, though I believe in the very depths of my soul we can make it great together.

Can you imagine the future within our reach? It's very exciting. I know many Montanans can see this future. But they also know we cannot get there individually. It must be a collective enterprise, like a statewide barn-raising or the community-wide sand-bagging we see so routinely in Montana when an impending natural disaster forces us to set aside the very few things we disagree about and concentrate on a mutual objective of building something positive and protective--together. People still need each other in this world. A beauty of life in Montana is that we still know we need each other in this world.

Four years ago tonight Montana faced a financial calamity in the form of a projected $200 million General Fund deficit, and a Workers Compensation system on the brink of bankruptcy with premiums rising regularly. Working together--legislators, the Executive branch, Democrats-Republicans, workers-employers, all kinds of Montanans--we not only eliminated that government deficit, we produced a surplus, which was returned to the people who sent us here.

And, working together, the recovery of our Workers' Compensation system is almost complete. We will propose some more reforms this session. But our Workers' Comp system is now one of the nation's lower cost systems and has reduced premiums an average of 36 percent over the last 18 months.

Our economy is growing at a healthy, steady pace; Montana's private sector creates one new job about every hour, around the clock, and unemployment rates in recent months have dropped to the level of the 1970s. Montana's state government has successfully completed one of the largest government reorganizations in our state's history. Our books are in order and Montana enjoys some of the highest financial ratings possible.

Additionally, we have launched a far-reaching infrastructure and highway improvement program to mend many of the postponed maintenance problems of yesteryear. This is a mammoth undertaking, one that continues in our Executive Budget, one that will take years to complete.

But we know the state of the state can be better. What can we do to elevate Montana up the ladder of economic expectations and achievements?

We believe we can make a major step forward through a program we call "Today and Tomorrow"--"Today" because it would take a portion of coal severance taxes from today's production and invest them--all of them, every single penny--within Montana, securing an even higher return for the citizens of "Tomorrow". Currently, those taxes--about $20 million per year--flow into a savings account that already totals almost $600 million. It is invested in various forms of financial instruments, more than 80 percent of which do not involve Montana. The income goes into the General Fund to pay for various programs.

For 20 years Today and Tomorrow would instead invest that new $20 million annually in projects, all in Montana, at today's lower prices, that would produce an economic benefit far in excess of any interest earned from going into a savings account. Today and Tomorrow's investments would create Montana jobs today building infrastructure improvements and research and development projects that would help create a stronger Montana economy and culture tomorrow.

Today and Tomorrow investments would generate more than 3,400 jobs every year building new water and sewage plants and bridges, repairing or replacing old schools, adding computers to schools, strengthening university research and development, rescuing historic sites and properties such as Virginia City and conserving undeveloped land and open rural spaces so future generations can enjoy the same inspiring shoulder room we have sometimes taken for granted.

These $20 million can also be leveraged with matching federal and private money and, we estimate, could actually total more than $100 million each year. Think for a moment what that much money can do for our future--at today's prices.

And think about the open spaces of rural land that we see every day surrounding our communities. Everything in Montana begins with the land. We must never forget that. The land was here before any of us. And it will still be here long after all of us are gone. But what we do--or don't do--with the land during this brief stewardship can be our living legacy to our children and theirs. That's why we included land stewardship in the Today and Tomorrow program, a program for the state to buy easements on private lands--again, at today's prices--to keep them forever open, productive and clean.

I do not--we do not--want to wake up some years down the road and see what has happened to this land because we did not have the courage to confront the issue in 1997, because it really did not seem painful enough back then. Look around at other popular states and see if you think conditions there improved by not planning ahead.

True, Today and Tomorrow is a bold program. It would involve change, changing for 20 years the way we invest those coal tax funds. It will require a three-quarters vote of these legislative bodies, clearly a high standard. Some have predicted it will fail, as some things always do. Although I will make no predictions, I hope for and expect the best, because I truly believe it is good for Montana--today and tomorrow. It is time to try.

"There is," as General George Patton once said, "a time to take counsel of your fears and there is a time to never listen to any fear." I think the time is right and the opportunity for such change is here, and I believe a significantly large majority of Montanans agree. I fervently hope they make themselves heard in coming days. And I exhort you to listen to them, seek their guidance, follow their will. We cannot be afraid to set sail for a new world.

And while we are discussing our state's physical infrastructure, let us also address its social infrastructure. We propose to address, finally, the long-delayed or ignored problems of the past in our corrections system. In fact, we have more than a 100-year history, predating our statehood, of inadequately addressing the corrections issue and then deflecting responsibility for the system's difficulties.

Listen to this history. It may sound dreadfully and painfully familiar: When the Montana Territory was created in 1864, it had no prison. Three years later Congress had a design for a $100,000 prison; it appropriated barely 40 percent of the actual cost--only $40,000.

Three years later the territorial prison opened a 14-cell facility. Twenty-eight days after the first inmates arrived, the prison was overcrowded. Within 60 months, 80 prisoners were sharing 28 cells.

Ninety days after becoming a state, Montana's prison board concluded it could not operate nor renovate the prison and opted to "privatize" the entire prison operation for 70 cents per prisoner per day.

In 1911, the prison had 474 cells--but 650 inmates. By 1931 we had 721 prisoners and a special legislative committee declared the crumbling old blockhouse a public disgrace. Still, that blockhouse stayed in operation another 28 years.

In 1958, the Legislative Council called for a new prison with a capacity of 950 inmates. A generation later, in 1977, a new prison was actually built to accommodate 334 inmates, only 35 percent of the capacity recommended 19 years before.

The current prison facility is designed to house 850 inmates. It currently houses 1,313.

Another 100 prisoners are waiting in county jails and another 250 are in Texas. We project about 3,000 total prisoners by the year 2000. As you can see, the pattern has continued.

What this condensed historical chronology reveals is our society's effective and consistent inattention to an ongoing problem for more than a century. There has been a lack of financial and political commitment to make it function properly and an overabundance of inattention until something serious goes wrong.

Then great surprise and public dismay are expressed, usually aimed in the direction of corrections professionals who had been warning of impending difficulties managing a seriously-strained system cobbled together with baling twine and Band-Aids.

As history has repeated itself, repeatedly, the process of denying the message and condemning the messenger is thereafter followed by an intense, although brief, period of apparently serious inquiry and a new round of profound proposals which are soon doubted, dilluted, delayed or deserted.

And the sad cycle begins all over again.

As Governor, I am responsible for our corrections system; that is unmistakably clear. The buck stops here and I intend to do everything I can or know how to do to interrupt and to terminate that insidious cycle with a modernization program to meet the needs of today, not those of a generation ago.

That does not mean that we should rely upon a corrections approach that ignores prevention, rehabilitation and diversion. Some people suggest we must turn to prevention as a criminal justice strategy. I say, we already have. We never abandoned prevention.

Indeed, already, for every single inmate inside our prison there are three more diverted outside to probation, parole or community-based incarceration--more than fifty-one hundred by the end of fiscal year 1996. And that figure is estimated to jump to nearly 6,000 in the next 30 months.

Other prevention efforts have involved substantial investments--millions of dollars worth--made in programs to identify and deal with societal risk factors that increase the probability of criminal activity among the young: Medicaid Outreach, MIAMI, Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Programs, expanded child care, Family Preservation Services, Youth Alcohol and Drug Treatment, Permanency Planning, Montana Youth Alternatives, DARE, and the Out-of-Home Placement program.

Your commitment to prevention has not only reduced costs, it has prevented unreckoned human tragedy. The Family Preservation Services program has worked to stabilize and strengthen at-risk families while simultaneously decreasing out-of-home placement of children as well as combating child abuse and neglect. Your increased investment in quality day care--and that's what it is, an investment--is and will remain an extremely important part of our welfare reforms, affecting as it does some 5,000 Montana children.

Your endorsement of our permanency program has allowed us to develop permanent placements for children, reducing the numbers of foster care children. And we are proposing important new reforms to facilitate adoptions and properly place children in permanent, loving homes.

As further evidence of our commitment to prevention, the Executive Budget proposes significant increases in prevention services, including new efforts focused on teen pregnancy prevention, targeted case management for children at risk and $5.4 million in community grants for prevention, treatment and juvenile placements.

In the adult corrections system since 1993 our community corrections capacity has grown by 50 percent and probation and parole staff increased approximately 40 percent. Our Executive Budget recommends further significant increases for both community corrections and probation and parole.

Yes, there are costs--sometimes large costs--associated with properly building and funding a modern corrections system. Our plan proposes adding 1,400 prison spaces by the end of fiscal year 2001. Let me point out too there are also costs to NOT properly building and funding a modern corrections system.

There may be room for debate over details of a strategic plan; no one in our Administration has ever said take everything or leave it all. But there is no room for debate over protecting the basic personal security of our citizens. That is one of the most fundamental obligations of government. And as a former prosecutor who too often witnessed up close the ravages of crime on the lives of victims and their loved ones, I take that obligation to provide security extremely seriously.

As we discuss this important issue, let us also strive to keep things in perspective. Probably any inmates are too many for a perfect society. But while our total inmate population of about 2,000 seems like a lot--and it is--for Montana, that number is barely five weeks' worth of newcomers into the Florida prison system, which has a total of 64,000.

For the most recent year's figures available, Montana has the fourth smallest prison population of any state. We even rank below South Dakota, which has 100,000 fewer people.

Let us remember too that while we do have a total of 7,600 individuals involved in our correctional system--from community corrections through Death Row--that also means that we have 872,400 law-abiding citizens in our state, people who are not involved with our corrections system. Those people have rights, too; those are the people we are working for and working to protect.

Theresa and I have been blessed with being the parents of five children, each unique and each loved beyond measure. Like you, we have dedicated our time, our talents and our treasure to our children with every ounce of effort and resource we can muster. We have not done so perfectly, as I'm sure they may recall, but we have tried diligently to teach them what they need to know to have a chance to be peaceful and productive people.

Each of them has progressed through our public school system and three have gone on to college and graduate school, both public and private, with two remaining to follow. Collectively, their teachers may have spent more waking moments with our children than anyone else and, as parents, we will be forever grateful for the care, counsel and knowledge shared by those skilled professionals. Teaching--there is no more noble endeavor anywhere on this planet. And we, along with all Montana parents, would like to thank our teachers and all who help prepare our children for life.

As the education of our children properly dominates the lives of our families, it rightfully dominates our General Fund budget. The Executive Budget proposes increases for larger enrollments in our schools and higher education system. But, in addition, in order to keep pace and comply with our constitutional obligation to equalize educational opportunity, per student allocations are increased as are those for teacher retirement, school construction and transportation.

Importantly, investments in technology and distance-learning are recommended for both schools and higher education as well as funding for the accountable school improvement project. Montana has expended relatively few resources to measure the performance of public education from classroom to classroom and school to school. Without a school "report card" it is difficult for parents, teachers, administrators, trustees or legislators to make key decisions and evaluations about the state of our public schools. The school improvement project responds to this need.

Parenthetically, let me add that each of the recommendations in the Executive Budget, including and most especially those that involve education, have been carefully reviewed and refined. Not one requests anything that would just be nice to have. We ask only for what is essential.

We must continue the continuous struggle for tax reform. Our Executive Budget provides $65 million in new and ongoing business equipment tax reductions and another $70 million in property tax relief.

Clearly, the property tax situation has urgently seized our immediate attention and will not escape remediation. But it should not escape our attention either that what we are presently experiencing, again, with our property tax system is further confirmation of the necessity for comprehensive tax reform. Now I have learned many profound and humbling lessons in my temporary stewardship of this office. None, perhaps, were more profound or more humbling than those associated with tax reform.

We will come to grips with the projected and unacceptable property tax increases. And the solution will last for a while, at least until the next time the Legislature convenes. But even if we achieve every measure of success with one or a combination of the proposals we have discussed, we will not strike at the roots of the problem. We will hack at the branches once again and await the next emergency call to action.

Our taxation system was designed during the Industrial Age with an almost exclusive emphasis on tangible assets. We are living now in the Information Age when markets and assets move electronically around the world at the speed of light and many of our most valuable assets are intangible--our air, our scenery, our safety, our civility and our way of life. Yet our tax system reflects little, if any, of these new realities. We have a Model T tax system in a microchip world.

Additionally, our state's diversity is wonderful to look at, to taste, to learn about, to live in and among. But our diversity is a positively awful place in which to equitably reform taxes. One area's relief is another's burden. And vice versa.

In spite of the travail, I cannot let go of this issue. The unfairness and inefficiency of our tax system toward the people who live here constantly gnaws at the core of my soul. There are each year in our state nearly ten times as many visitors as there are permanent residents--about eight million visitors and about 880,000 Montanans.

These visitors may sometimes drive too quickly for our tastes. But they also bring many positive benefits. They help remind us by their compliments and their appreciation what a spectacular corner of God's good earth we share here. And, not least, they economically support some 60,000 jobs with a total economic benefit of $1.2 billion. And we are delighted to see figures indicating that our strategy to steer visitors to the under-utilized areas of Montana, particularly in the east, is succeeding so well.

Tourism, as you know, has become our Number 2 industry, still far behind agriculture. The facts are: Montanans, because of our relatively few numbers and our relatively large size are asked to support a massive infrastructure. We have, for instance, more miles of highway per person than 47 other states.

In our continued diligence to make our tax system fair for Montanans, we must somehow find a way to allow these visitors to shoulder their fair share of the costs of their presence in and use of the Big Sky Country and its facilities. During their stay they do pay their accomodations tax and some portion of gas taxes, as resident Montanans do daily.

But under our current tax system, nine out of ten people in Montana this year do not pay their fair share for the use of our most valuable resources. Those nine are visitors. Out of fairness, the rest of us should change that.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am ready to work in good faith with the Legislature and other interested Montanans to fashion a comprehensive tax reform proposal that uses all of the revenue generated by a constitutionally-capped sales tax to reduce the escalating property taxes our fellow citizens disdain. The sooner we make that decision the better we will be.

I travel around this huge state an awful lot--many thousands of miles in these first four years, and many thousands more miles in my years as a prosecutor before that. Traveling Montana is a rich blessing, even with the icy roads. I've even become familiar with certain bumps in the same places every year.

Late on those long nights when the stars are so bright they make midnight shadows, I have often thought that the only time we get in trouble over disagreements in Montana is when we really have not been listening fully to each other. It occurs to me that 98 percent of all Montanans probably agree on about 98 percent of anything they are discussing.

Human beings, especially human beings in an age of instant communications, have an intriguing fascination with conflict. Conflict, even superficial conflict, is an integral part of our drama, our literature, our entertainment, our news. In fact, the surest way to be ignored today is to have a quiet conversation or a unanimous vote...

In our wonderful eagerness to improve things and to find and debate better ways with our Made in Montana candor, let none of us ever forget that 100 percent of the conflict really concerns only two percent of the issues. That really is true.

The old ways of winners and losers in public service will no longer work, if it ever did. We need each other too much and there is too much to be done to waste even one ounce of energy on such old-fashioned ways. We should instead appreciate even more the divergent views of our diverse regions and peoples, realizing that such variety merely reflects the overpowering natural diversity of this wondrous landscape where God, family and even chance have brought us together as temporary stewards.

Let us not build walls between us. Let us instead develop strong new habits of the heart to build bridges among us so that we can not only come to understand each other better but come to work with each other better.

Five years ago, minus a few days, in another room in this hallowed building I announced our candidacy for Governor by promising--and I quote--"If elected, we will serve with honor and strive to instill, by example, a respect for the simple values of honesty, integrity, ethical behavior, common decency and personal regard for every person."

We have tried to live up to that promise. Tonight I repeat that vow. And I know Judy joins me.

May God bless Montana as we seek, together, to build a new future on this vast landscape. May God bless our elected legislators as they work, together, to focus their collective citizen attentions, imaginations, diversities and dedications on the issues before them. And may God bless us all, each and every one, for our shared time together in--and our shared love of--this truly special corner of our truly wondrous land.

Thank you. And good night.


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