Monday, March 5, 2007

Welcome to the dark side

As predicted, fireworks flew at the House Appropriations Committee. The AP article reporting on the proceedings was kind in characterizing budget director David Ewer's comments as being a "warning." One felt more like he was making the committee an offer they couldn't refuse.

It is certainly understandable that those who had spent much time and effort developing the governor's budget would be unhappy at seeing the House budgeting process take a different course.

Montana Headlines, on the one hand, doesn't feel terribly sorry for the executive branch, given that it wouldn't take a genius to understand that a 23%+ increase in state spending was going to have opposition. We particularly didn't feel sympathetic when no moves toward compromise on spending materialized.

On the other hand, watching Ewer's scarcely contained fury, it all came home: there are some Democrats who never expected to lose control of the House in the 2006 elections and who still haven't accepted that Republicans earned a place at the table in these discussions.

Democratic overconfidence was understandable. They never dreamed that Republicans would manage to overcome their gerrymandered districts this quickly, winning control of the House and tying the Senate in only the second election after redistricting. In many ways, their rhetoric prior to the election seemed to indicate that they expected to expand their majorities in both houses.

Even after those blows, they were given, courtesy of Sen. Kitzenberg's defection, reason to delude themselves that they wouldn't need to adjust to the new reality. Ewer certainly gives the impression that this delusory bubble only burst for him on the morning of March 5th, 2007.

Watching Ewer deliver his seething and condescending opening tirade at House Republicans, one wonders where this gentleman learned his political manners.

The crowd had been warmed up by Democratic House members, who badgered HB 805 sponsor Rep. Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, by asking him the same questions over and over again -- seemingly choosing not to understand his answers. Montana Headlines was gratified to see that Ripley never once got flustered, and kept calmly walking members through the budget line by line, placidly chewing gum and peering over the top of his glasses.

After Ewer's outburst, a series of state department directors testified against HB 805 while Ewer sat just off the left shoulder of each speaker at the podium, with his face giving a running color commentary on how obediently and effectively each department representative was toeing the executive branch line. (Ewer dodged the question when he was directly questioned regarding whether the department directors were asked to testify against HB 805 -- but the answer was obvious.)

Particularly amusing was watching while Commerce Director Anthony Preite gave his genial and gentlemanly presentation. As long as Preite read from his text, Ewer sat smug -- but when he looked up and gave extemporaneous remarks that showed some warmth, Ewer glowered until he returned to script. It was not our imagination, since during questioning from the committee, Preite confessed that he "almost had Mr Ewer on his back" at one point when he apparently almost told the legislature that his department would do just fine with the HB 805 funding.

Even more uncomfortable was watching certain directors whose budgets had been increased beyond what the governor had requested (namely Agriculture and Livestock) being made to testify against the bill.

All the while, Ewer sat behind them like a dark enforcer. When trying to place exactly where we had seen his imperious expressions before, it suddenly came upon us: The Devil Wears Prada.

We watched in disbelief as Ewer got up out of his seat at one point (when he wasn't the one being questioned, no less) to virtually leap into Rep. Wells's face: "Did you get your answer? Did you get your answer? Did you get your answer?"

Maybe that's how they taught Ewer to act back at Harvard -- we don't know. But one wonders just how well this act is going to play in Montana if Ewer gives 6 back-to-back command performances of this sort.


Hallie said...

Thank you for all this information. It's almost like being there.

Montana Headlines said...

You're welcome. It really was something to watch.

Any question that Montana Headlines had been too harsh on Ewer disappeared this morning when we saw that Charles Johnson, in the Gazette front-page article, also described Ewer with the same word we chose: seething.

There really was no better word to describe it.

For the record, it should be noted that all of the department directors gave their testimony with appropriate respect and decorum -- but not Ewer. There was no sense that he was a representative of the executive branch, talking to a committee of a co-equal branch of government.

His demeanor was one of "how dare you cross me, don't you know who I am?"

mtliberty said...

Question: is it somehow appropriate for a budget director to take a political position on this. Which is to say, is the budget director and appointed position, or a civil service position? I can't find anything in Mt Code that say's one way or the other.

Montana Headlines said...

I'm assuming that the budget director is a political appointee -- I'm not sure how it could work otherwise. But I may be wrong.

If it isn't, it sure seems like one this session.

deepmoat said...

The budget director is appointed by the governor.