Saturday, March 24, 2007

We've got 'em right where we want 'em

Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish that principle.

-- Russell Kirk

The portrait is, of course, of Edmund Burke, and we will return to the Kirk quotation later. The title of this post is what the legendary quarterback John Elway said to his teammates when they were pinned down on their own 2-yard line, trailing in the 1987 AFC championship with time running out.

Elway had an advantage, because it was 1st down. The Montana House GOP leadership is 4th and long on the Human Services bill (the last of their 8 bills), but it looks like they may finally have found a way to construct it that might actually get the needed 51 votes from the GOP caucus+Jore.

And, we might add, to do so by creating something that actually resembles a serious appropriations bill (i.e. no mock $300 tabula rasa on which the Senate must write the bill themselves.)

The Senate is starting to work over the first 4 appropriations bills sent to them from the House, and so we will now for the first time get some substantive Democratic input -- a must if we want our good governor to sign off on the specific compromises and solutions that need to be reached in the bills.

If budget director David Ewer was furious at having to testify as an opponent of the GOP bills in the House, what he must be feeling at having to come before a Senate committee to talk about bills that have actually been formally endorsed by the House Appropriations committee and formally passed by the Montana House of Representatives, we can hardly imagine. He may actually have to treat them like real bills.

Fortunately for Ewer, in dealing with the Senate Finance and Claims Committee he now has the assistance of Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, a former state budget director under Democratic and Republican administrations, to help explain things to him:

"The kinds of increase that we're talking about in this budget are so extraordinary that I can't even imagine you wouldn't be more accepting of the adjustments that were made," Lewis said. "We've never seen anything like this."

Jeff Mangan, who knows a lot more about how things work in Helena than most, has proposed that the most workable compromise might be to bring back HB 2 in exchange for permanent property tax relief. He postulates that the GOP might have to choose between their split appropriations bills and getting the property tax relief they promised when campaigning.

This may still very well need to happen, but if the most recent version of the Human Services bill passes, the political landscape will shift, and the GOP will be in a position to expect both the split bills and the necessary substantive compromises on spending, tax relief, and other legislation.

The feeling at Montana Headlines is that it would be a bad idea to bring back HB 2, simply because it rewards bad behavior on the part of House Democrats, who refused to participate in the process of amending the House bills.

Democrats, of course, hold precisely the opposite view -- that they don't want to reward what they see as bad behavior on the part of House Republicans in splitting the appropriations bills. If this last appropriations bill passes, however, the GOP will have done what they are responsible for doing -- they will have passed comprehensive appropriations legislation using the procedural rules of the House.

The Senate, in turn, can now use its own rules and procedures to amend those bills in a way that can come to a substantive consensus between the House Republican leadership, the Senate Democratic leadership, and the governor. It has been predicted that cooler heads will prevail once the bills hit the Senate -- may it be so.

We started this post with the quotation from Russell Kirk about Edmund Burke for a reason. The compromises that we will get from this process will, in the end, leave us with a state government that most conservatives will think is taxing, regulating, and spending too much.

It will be a state government that is not doing as much as it should to address critical things like the coming crisis of illegal immigration and the ongoing crisis of the depopulation of our rural areas.

It will be a state government that is still using misdirected programs to address real problems. As an example, think full-day kindergarten -- which will not address the real problem of having some Montana high-school graduates who are intelligent and motivated enough to go to college but who can't read and write properly.

Progressives (and as an aside to 4&20 BB -- don't even think of ruining our reputation by calling us one) will of course portray the end product as a once beautiful work of art that was marred by unappreciative Republicans -- but Republicans should take that in stride, speaking and behaving in such a way that we can say that we have accepted some changes of which we disapproved, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation.

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