Friday, April 27, 2007

Billings Gazette headline misleads on legislative adjournment

In its on-line headline, the Gazette states that the Montana "Legislature adjourns without budget bill."

True, but it misses the point that the Senate Democrats elected (on a straight party-line vote) to adjourn, even though time still remained to hammer out a last-minute compromise. Apparently the Democrats gambled that House Republicans would be scared into voting for the original Senate bills:

House Minority Whip Bob Bergren, D-Havre, urged Republicans to adopt the spending plan passed by Senate Democrats, rather than carrying the issue over to a special session.

Um, if House Republicans were willing just to sign off on the Senate bills, that's what they would have done long before. So the Republican House followed suit by also adjourning, which was exactly the right thing to do.

Whatever the Senate spending bills were, they certainly were not compromise legislation. In our opinion, they were bad bills -- having exceeded even the executive branch's already excessive spending increases.

It would be understandable if Democrats and Republicans had come to an agreement to adjourn before the day was over, agreeing that there was an impasse that couldn't be worked out by midnight (or whenever the clock officially runs out.) Senate Democrats could at least have gone through the motions of trying to work out last-minute compromises. As it is, one wonders if they were quickly adjourning before peace could break out.

While Montana Headlines has expressed the opinion that Republicans ended up getting out-maneuvered politically, and while we are disappointed that the Republican leadership didn't stay cool, calm, and collected during the closing weeks of the session, we have to agree with Speaker Sales on one point: Democrats never really took the Republican House majority seriously.

Democrats were under no obligation to do so, especially since a couple of votes in Laurel could have left the body tied. Likewise, Republicans were under no obligation to treat seriously a one-vote Democratic Senate majority created by a party-jumper -- and when Republican candidates received significantly more votes state-wide in competitive legislative races than did Democrats.

It would have been best had each side taken the other seriously, and if both sides had acknowledged that election night was for all practical purposes a tie. But, neither side acted that way, so things turned out as they did.

Again, the Montana Headlines preference all along was for the House Republicans to stay steady and calm and just keep working. We knew that the situation alone was going to tempt them to get angry, and that it is normal politics for each side to try to provoke the other into acting out.

Some have commented that the Republican leadership in the House was just too inexperienced due to term limits. There is probably a lot of truth in that, but Montana voters decided that they wanted a more amateur bunch of politicians in Helena, and they call the shots. Others believe that Republicans chose the wrong leadership for this session -- perhaps so, but on the other hand, there are no do overs, so we will never know how a more "moderate" Republican leadership would have performed.

Only if the hypothetical alternative leadership in this hypothetical alternative session had ended up with spending lower than Democrats were asking for and real property tax cuts for all would they have been more successful. We'll never know how it would have turned out, so such speculations are irrelevant.

At the end of the day, when all of the theatrics and posturing and polemics and dramatics are swept aside, what was left on the table by Democrats for House Republicans to vote on were spending bills that exceeded what the executive requested (let alone what the House had voted for) and property tax cuts or rebates that were essentially the same as what the Democrats started the session proposing.

If there was substantive compromise on the table for Republicans to vote on, we missed it.

Republicans should not blame the governor for this impasse. While it is great when an executive is a skilled mediator who can bring Democrats and Republicans together to forge reasonable bipartisan compromises that bring the state together, that isn't in the governor's job description.

It is in the job description of legislators -- of both parties -- to pass appropriations bills. Regardless of which body has the "upper hand," and regardless of which party has the more polished leadership, we have a bicameral legislature, which means that those appropriations and tax bills have to be ones that majorities in both the Senate and the House are willing to vote for.

Let's hope that both sides return to a special session with a willingness to craft some genuine compromise legislation. That means lower spending than what the executive asked for and more substantial property tax cuts

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