Thursday, February 15, 2007

Doing the splits -- Mike Lange at work

Good for House Majority Leader Mike Lange, R-Billings, and his Republican colleagues. They not only refused to be intimidated into keeping HB2, the big omnibus state spending bill that had been a tradition in Montana legislative work for the last 30 years, but they also refused to be intimidated into revealing their exact plans for splitting it until they were ready to go public.

If they had gone public with tentative and thus flawed plans, they would have been shot to pieces and been criticized for having a slipshod approach to the spending bills. The Democrats' criticism of their "secrecy" is hardly valid, since one doubts that Republican leaders were repeatedly invited to the governor's mansion to go through each phase of the planning process of Schweitzer's requested budget. Republicans need to remember this particular criticism being shot in their direction, and pull it out for polite reminders in the future when appropriate.

It is likewise quite amusing to hear Democrats talking about "bullying tactics" from the Republicans. Last anyone checked, it has been their side of the aisle that has been insisting that they get their way on this budget. It has been the governor, fairly or unfairly, who has been the subject of questions about bullying tactics. That is a knife that cuts both ways, and it is best that neither side picks it up.

Legislatures have rules, and if the Republicans keep the parliamentary rules and don't break longstanding traditions (and a tradition only around since the late 70's hardly qualifies), then everyone is on a fair footing. The overwhelming power is still in the hands of the Democrats, and they really can't complain that they don't have the legitimate tools at their disposal to pursue their agenda. If their plans are supported by the vast majority of Montanans, they will prevail.

As much as Montana Headlines likes it when the good guys are in 100% control of everything, the reality is that divided government isn't a bad thing. The bad thing about divided government is that it can require nonsensical compromises that end up creating legislation so watered down as to be worthless to anyone. A good thing about it is that it forces the proponents of legislation, tax policies, and spending proposals to sharpen their legislation into bills that can be sold to the public. When one party has full control, there is no-one there to stop ill-conceived or poorly written law from being rubber-stamped.

Republicans are doing exactly what loyal oppositions are supposed to do. So Democrats should stop it already with the feigned shock and the "howls of protest" (to quote the Gazette article.)

Some real leadership is going on in Helena within the Republican caucus, and we can never have too much of that. It is truly remarkable: with a 50-49 edge and a leadership that was elected within the Republican caucus by a hair-breadth, the GOP has hung together to a degree that has surprised everyone.

Democrats had been none too subtle in their braggadocio about how easy it was going to be to peel off a moderate Republican or two to ram their agenda through. That this hasn't transpired with anticipated ease is provoking dismay amongst Democrats in Helena, but it warms our Republican hearts here at Montana Headlines.

It seems that not every Republican is as easy to entice and co-opt as Sen. Sam Kitzenberg and Lt. Gov John Bohlinger were.

As Montana Headlines wrote in December (and again in January), the basic contour of the governor's requested budget is sound. It is in matters of prioritization and proportionality that the differences lie, and by splitting the spending megabill into parts that must stand or fall on their own merits, Republicans are making it possible for those details to be worked out.

More importantly, Republicans came into this session with everyone expecting that they had a choice between obstructing the entire Schweitzer budget or essentially rolling over and going along with it, being thrown a bone here or there to help save face. They rejected the idea that those were their only two choices and came up with a third, one that allows their ideas and principles to compete with those of the opposition, yet without being painted into an "obstructionist" corner. Montana Headlines always likes it when anyone in politics shows a little creativity in refusing to accept that the choices offered are the only choices available.

Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, responded to the splitting of HB2 (which does nothing to prevent Democrats from pursuing legislative success on every single point of the governor's requested budget) by grousing about a lack of bipartisan cooperation and collegiality. Both sides came into this session saying that they realized that neither would get everything they wanted. Right now it is the Democrats who are looking as though they didn't mean it.

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