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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Last April, partisanship reached new extremes in the Montana Legislature. Democratic lawmakers, shouting and pounding their desks, drowned out the Republican majority’s attempts to read Senate Bill 408. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, called the partisan warfare “worse than Washington, D.C.”

The bill, which passed on a party-line vote, sent to the November 2014 ballot a referendum that will let Montanans choose to replace party-based primaries with a top-two system: Rather than advancing the Republican, Democratic and third-party primary winners to general elections, top-two systems require all candidates to face off in a single primary. The two most-popular candidates advance, regardless of party. (Even though Bullock opposed the measure, referendum bills don’t need to be signed by the governor in Montana.)

Washington state implemented the system in 2008, as did our state of California in 2012. Advocates say the old system favors extremists and contributes to polarization. Political observers disagree on whether the reforms have helped.

But one result is undeniable: Top-two has banished minor parties, like Libertarians and Greens, from general-election ballots.

“They’re screwed,” says Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political scientist. That prospect seems to be exactly what’s motivating Montana Republicans, who blame Libertarian spoilers for their recent narrow losses to Democrats.

Many politicos see traditional primaries, which generally allow only registered Democrats or Republicans to vote, as partly to blame for congressional dysfunction. Both parties have painstakingly redrawn legislative districts to make them safe bets. Primaries in some of these reliably red or blue districts have become more decisive than general elections, forcing candidates to court the voters that turn out for them—often the parties’ most right- or left-wing members.

This puts centrists at a disadvantage. Many “establishment” House Republicans, for instance, took a back seat to their Tea Party colleagues in last year’s government shutdown, fearing that any compromise with Democrats would provoke primary challenges from conservative ideologues. The resulting crises have prompted more calls for primary reform, and rebellion among conservative allies dissatisfied with the gridlock. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is throwing its weight behind old-guard Republicans like Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, who is facing a Tea Party primary opponent. A pro-business political group is doing the same in Montana.

California state legislators, unable to compromise over taxes and spending, also created regular budget crises. In response, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger helped lead a successful push for reforms, including the top-two primary system. It would promote moderation, proponents believed, because candidates would have to appeal not only to their ideological base, but to voters of all political leanings.

For the top-two system to work, however, centrists have to vote. Turnout for California’s 2012 primaries slumped to its lowest ever, while Washington’s dropped to its third-lowest. That may be why California politicians are no more aligned with the average voter than they were before the change, according to two survey-based studies. And Washington’s Legislature was already fairly moderate, says Donovan, who has seen little evidence of political change.

Advocates say top-two just needs more time. Still, they believe it’s already helping: Last fall, former Republican strategist Dan Schnur told The New York Times, “You see Republicans voting for immigration reform; you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations.”

In any case, the new system has undoubtedly further marginalized minority parties. Third-party congressional candidates appeared regularly on Washington’s ballot before 2008; only one has done so since. In California, where more than 20 percent of voters are registered independents, the only third-party candidate on the 2012 general-election ballot was Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

While sidelining minority parties was never the goal in Washington and California, it appears to be driving the GOP’s push for a top-two system in Montana. In 2006, incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, lost to Democrat Jon Tester by only 3,562 votes. A Libertarian took about 10,000 votes. In 2012, many think Libertarian candidate Dan Cox, with help from liberal dark money, siphoned votes from Republican Denny Rehberg, enabling Tester’s second victory. Cox drew 31,892 votes—13,820 more than Rehberg lost by. A Libertarian took 4 percent of votes in the 2012 governor’s race, which Democrat Steve Bullock won by just 2 points.

But a top-two system may not guarantee future GOP victories, says Richard Winger, a California-based ballot-access analyst. The theory that Libertarians spoiled these races assumes that the votes they draw would otherwise go to Republicans. That’s not always true. When a Libertarian won 6.5 percent of the vote in Virginia’s last governor’s race, exit polls showed that those voters were largely pro-choice, and some favored the Democrat over the Republican. Either way, Montana Libertarians anticipate extinction if the state adopts top-two. “You have to wonder if (the Republicans) actually believe in the free market, because they are trying to use the forces of government to their ends,” says Montana Libertarian Party chair Mike Fellows.

Not everyone is worried about the potential demise of third parties. Montana political scientist Jim Lopach thinks that top-two would have a net benefit for the state if it had a moderating influence. On the other hand, general elections are “where people discuss what they want in an office, and what they want in public policy,” says Andrew Spencer, an attorney with FairVote, a voter advocacy group. A third-party presence can help shape the debate, and even policy. Independent Ross Perot, who campaigned for president in 1992 on fiscal prudence and took nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, is credited with influencing Bill Clinton’s effort to balance the federal budget.

“If you opened up a good burger restaurant, more people are still going to eat at Burger King and McDonald’s,” says Montana Libertarian Dan Cox. “It takes time to get your share of the marketplace.”

However, in Montana, as in California, time may be running out.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Politics

When the Tea Party tide crested, a number of Western Republicans surfed it into the U.S. House of Representatives.

There was Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, who promotes gutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, saying it's "low-hanging fruit" that must be picked to shrink the federal deficit. New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce harnessed anti-government momentum to win a tight oilman-versus-oilman race. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, at first a long shot, also triumphed.

In January, Pearce and Labrador were among 12 Republicans who voted against John Boehner for speaker of the House. Boehner supported a fiscal cliff deal they believed included too many tax hikes ($600 billion over 10 years), and too few spending cuts ($0).

But the cuts just came later. On March 1, after Congress and the White House failed (again) to agree on a deficit-reducing budget, across-the-board discretionary spending cuts were triggered. The so-called "sequestration" is recognized by even the most conservative of conservatives as bad policy, because the cuts are indiscriminate. Still, it is ostensibly a win for them. This time, they got spending cuts ($1.2 trillion over 10 years) without tax increases ($0). On Meet the Press, Labrador said, "Most folks in Idaho are saying that we did the right thing."

So it was surprising to hear Pearce tear into Senate Democrats for failing to increase the U.S. Forest Service's budget post-sequester, saying he was "bewildered" they would ignore wildfire threats by cutting the agency's funding. Or maybe it's not so surprising: New Mexico has recently endured historic wildfires, which are fought with federal money. Lamborn voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011, which mandated sequestration if a deficit deal wasn't reached. Though most economists agree meaningful deficit reduction won't come without slimmer military budgets, he opposed the sequester's potential trims to defense, probably because Lamborn's district is home to three military bases.

These deficit hawks' less-than-full-throated support of the budget cuts could be read as an implicit acknowledgment that though government largesse is a convenient political punching bag, many Western communities aren't that interested in giving it up.

For proof, liberal pundit David Sirota suggests looking here—California. Facing its own budget crisis in 2011, and with Republicans unwilling to support tax increases, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown deeply slashed higher education, health care, welfare, state workers' pay and the criminal-justice system. The most painful cuts could be avoided, Brown argued, if voters approved tax increases. He put a temporary tax hike on the rich to fund education before voters last fall, and it passed easily. The political lesson, Sirota says: Government is easy to hate in the abstract, but austerity is tough to stomach in practice.

That's not true everywhere. In 2010, cash-strapped Colorado Springs, Colo., asked voters to approve taxes to fund streetlights, law enforcement and park maintenance. They wouldn't, and the streets went dark; many public services were privatized; and citizens were invited to "adopt" lights and trash cans.

Whether or not privatization actually saved money in Colorado Springs, many stood by it on principle. Last spring, Councilwoman Jan Martin told This American Life about a man who adopted a streetlight for $300 and thanked her for the program. "I did remind him that for $200, if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers," Martin said. The man replied that he would never support higher taxes.

But as the birthplace of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR)—a constitutional stranglehold on how much state and local governments can tax and spend—Colorado Springs is unique in its dogmatic willingness to forgo government services. Many other Coloradans have voted to circumvent TABOR, allowing cities and counties to outspend its limits for schools and roads.

Will the new federal spending cuts cause enough pain in the rural West to seed the sort of pro-tax sentiment that has emerged in California's and Colorado's austerity wakes? Probably not—at least in the short term.

It's too early to tell what the full impact of the cuts will be. But for the most part, they won't be the drastic, sudden shock that Brown's were here in California, where universities took a 25 percent budget cut, and 70 state parks were threatened with closure. These will be more gradual and cumulative, with agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management spending around 5 percent less this year.

That's not to say the cuts won't cause real pain. The states' share of federal mineral royalties will be slashed—a $53 million blow to Wyoming, and $26 million loss for New Mexico between now and July. Counties are being asked to repay money already distributed under the Secure Rural Schools Act. Popular federal beneficiaries, like national parks, will suffer, too. The Park Service will hire 10 percent fewer seasonal workers this summer. And these are only the most recent cuts absorbed by agencies; federal employees have endured salary freezes and heavier workloads for a few years as vacant jobs go unfilled. Sequestration promises more of the same. Public-lands users may notice dirtier bathrooms, disheveled trails, longer lines at park entrances and shuttered campgrounds.

"Funding for national parks in today's dollars was (already) 15 percent below where it was a decade ago," says John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association. "They have been falling through the cracks as part of a broken process that is not meaningfully addressing the deficit."

Unfortunately, the hardest-hit communities will likely be the neediest. Indian Health Services, a chronically under-funded agency that enjoyed meaningful budget bumps recently thanks to champions like Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, wasn't exempted from the sequester like veterans' and children's health programs were—an accidental oversight. "But once it's law, you have to pass a whole new law (to change it)," explains Native American journalist Mark Trahant, who is writing a book about fiscal austerity. "In this Congress, that isn't going to happen."

Reservation school districts depend heavily on federal aid in lieu of property tax; Arizona's Window Rock Unified School District may be forced to close schools. Tribal colleges, which provide community services like buses, libraries and Native language education, may eliminate summer school, GED programs, and cut staff pay and healthcare, says Carrie Billy, who heads the doug.

Such cuts represent a breach of trust, she says. "The only tribal colleges that receive federal funds are colleges chartered by federally recognized tribes. They signed binding treaties with the federal government to fund education. They didn't just say 'when we have the money available.' And our little pot is still being cut."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Politics