Friday, February 23, 2007

In Helena, things get curiouser and curiouser

Back when this legislative session was still just a twinkle in Montana's political eye, sagacious prognosticators were predicting that the Republicans would be up in Helena saying all sorts of nasty things, attacking the governor and the Democrats, and generally acting like the rubes that we Republicans apparently are.

Well, GOP lawmakers have certainly been causing trouble for the Democrats, but not in the expected ways. What Democrats seemed to be prepared for was hot rhetoric from the hot-headed GOP leadership. What they have gotten instead has been some pretty cool political gamesmanship, and it seems to be rattling their nerves a bit. Which is odd, since as Montana Headlines has pointed out before, Democrats still have all the power in Helena, when it comes right down to it.

But the Republicans have quietly been forcing the Democrats either to compromise to degrees that they don't want (and the degree to which Democrats want to compromise right now seems to be rather miniscule) -- or to bring down the hammer and play hardball.

Some of the Democrat consternation is likely from correct but unattractive political calculations: namely that while bringing down the hammer will bring roars of praise from their strongholds, it will not play as well in some of the more conservative districts and precincts where they have made gains in the last couple of election cycles.

Reading the latest account of the budget battles in today's Billings Gazette, one gets the feeling that something else that has the Democrats at a bit of a loss is that Republicans have (at least in public) been largely ignoring the Democrats and are forging ahead with actions. Before this legislative session,
Montana Headlines had this to say:

The specific mix (of the budget), however, needs some serious Republican overhauling. One hopes that the GOP leadership concentrates on what is good for Montana, and doesn't focus on scoring political points against Schweitzer. If they do their jobs and articulate their proposals intelligently, the political points will follow.

We certainly don't think that anyone was paying much attention to us back then when this site was less than a month old. But the Republicans in Helena seem to have figured this one out. Rather than attacking the governor (something that Republicans should have realized long ago wasn't going to help with this particular skilled politician), they are largely ignoring him on those points where they have disagreements with him. They're just taking care of business, as they should.

It also may have irritated Democrats a little that Republicans have taken some of their talking points and turned them to Republican advantage. Here is Gov. Schweitzer in the State of the State address back in January, talking about the projected budget surplus for the biennium, using his folksy style to liken the state budget to a family budget:

Now how many families in Montana would rush home and say let's blow it, let's spend it? Some would.... But still other families would say, no, we better save some of that money. Other families would say, how about if we put some in health care, we'll help our children with education.... Still others would say, we have some maintenance that we must do on our home.... That's what most families would do in Montana, and we have proposed a budget that's exactly like those families and small businesses would do across Montana. For every dollar spent, a dollar saved.

Now here are the Republicans this week, as reported in the Gazette:

House Appropriations Chairman John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, likened the GOP approach to a family breaking its home budget into various expenditure categories such as housing, health care, vehicles, utilities and entertainment.

"We're taking this right down to a household budget," he said. "Why shouldn't government do that?"

But only a month after the State of the State address we now find our governor picking at the family budget analogy, again as reported in the Gazette:

He also questioned the Sinrud's home budgeting analogy, saying: "I wonder how many families have six checking accounts. They have one checkbook."

Stiff Republican opposition to the proposed appropriations bill could have been predicted when the Democrats decided to go for a 22.6% increase ($3.16 billion) in state spending -- after all, not many families would plan to increase their spending by that amount based on money that hasn't yet materialized.

And it could also be predicted that with the GOP proposing a 13.3% increase in spending (in what must surely be one of the biggest proposed one-time state spending increases in Montana's history) -- Democrats would attempt to portray them as slashing state government to the bone.

But the exact way in which it has played out has been quite curious -- and only promises to get curiouser.

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