Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Divide and conquer

While the Billings Gazette has its own report, the Great Falls Tribune gives a somewhat more detailed account of the proposed summit meeting in Billings between Democratic and Republican legislative leadership.

A few things jump out of the report:

1. While Rep. Mike Lange has taken a beating due to Epletive-gate, including baseless rumors (started by whom?) that he might be edged out of leadership, he is exactly right in insisting that the governor be involved in any talks and negotiations.

It is good that Speaker Sales is taking a more prominent role at this point -- listening to him on the final day of the session, one is reminded that the caricature of him painted by Democrats in the blogosphere is just that.

Based on the timing of the collapse of negotiations between Sen. Stapleton and Sen. Cooney on the last day of the session while there were still many hours to work things out, one suspects that Sen. Cooney is not able to make the final deal in the Senate, so why pretend that he is? There is a third person along on this date, so he might as well sit up front with the other two.

2. The expected mind games are going full steam, attempting to plant ideas into Republicans' head that certain of their number are in secret negotiation with the governor. In fact, the governor's comments can only be interpreted as a thinly veiled implication that he is talking to nearly everyone except the leadership:

"I've been speaking to a lot of other folks. ... They're frustrated with their own (Republican) leadership."

Well, maybe, but not because we want them to sign off on everything Senate Democrats propose.

A less confident leadership would feel undermined by their own people if they believed it. After all of the party-line votes that Republicans have held together on, though, it is hard to be terribly worried about this kind of smoke and mirrors.

This is especially true since no Republican is going to gain anything politically by undermining his own party at this point. Above all, none of this is personal or nefarious -- Democrats are just playing politics, and we'd be surprised if they didn't. So no need to over-react.

3. Democrats cannot assume that they are going to get to start negotiations where they ended in Helena on the last day of the session. Republicans had essentially, as we have written before, given in on all of the spending increases that the Senate wanted -- at least on a one-time basis, and they had long ago agreed to go along with the $400 election-year "check in every pot" nonsense.

The details that should have been worked out (and by all accounts were being worked out) was the extent of the permanent across-the-board property tax relief that Democrats would agree to in return. Since this was the only Republican request, not to come up with it in some form would have been an admission that the Democrats were not interested in compromise. Senator Cooney is too astute and experienced as a legislator not to see this.

An abrupt end to the session makes sense only from the standpoint of a plan to play for all the Democratic marbles. Republicans had nothing to gain by not cutting a deal on the last day of the session.

But regardless of who pulled the plug on those final negotiations from the Democratic side, a step is rightly being taken back by the House Republicans on spending proposals, with Lange now going back to talking about significant spending restraints on the proposed corrections and revenue department budget increases, and even in the "present law adjustments" that involve increases for existing programs.

This is exactly right. Republicans had given in on the spending increases, but had done so with the proposal of getting some sort of long-term property tax relief in return. With Senate Democrats refusing to come to an agreement on that, Republicans are now right to go back to their original position of pushing for much-needed spending restraint.

Montanans know a little about horse-trading, and it doesn't mean settling on the price that the seller initially asks for. Once they see that the Democratic idea of compromise was to give nothing on spending and to give nothing on long-term tax relief, Montanans should start to get the picture.


Jay Stevens said...

That's funny, where you say Sales' speech belies the "caricature" left blogs have created of the Speaker, I saw the caricature come alive. I found the speech offensive and divisive and wracked by hyperbole and littered with "misstatements" (a popular word in the contemporary GOP's lexicon).

Among the conservative circles I travel in, Lange and Sales are not very popular. In fact, previous ardent supporters of the GOP now call themselve partyless.

I can't but help think that this post is but a little wishful thinking on the eve of one of the worst disasters to beset the Republican party in Montana since President Hoover.

Montana Headlines said...

Sales said that they had asked for one thing -- and that Democrats weren't willing to compromise on that one thing.

I've seen no evidence to the contrary.

And for a speech to be offensive and divisive, full of hyperbole and misstatements -- then the core contention would have to be flat-out incorrect.

Unless someone can show me a specific Democratic proposal that shows otherwise, then Sales's speech was a speech by a House leader who had been refused any compromise by an opposing leadership that claimed to be willing to compromise to make a deal.

Under those circumstances, he was quite restrained in his speech.

Anonymous said...

What "conservative circles" does Jay travel in? Is he talking about the Montana Conservation Voters?

Jay Stevens said...

Sales tone set the debate from the beginning. The GOP found the one issue the Democrats wouldn't compromise on -- their progressive tax rebate -- and fought it from the beginning, obfuscating and obstructing the legislative process.

The Dems tax rebate reflects current lefty ideology putting the interests of the shrinking and sinking middle- and working-class families ahead of big business.

The GOP's rebate is...what? Put money in big pockets? Our tax rebate is better than yours?

Truly the GOP should have focused on trimming the budget instead of picking the one issue the Democrats valued for this session.

Rep. Sen. John Cobb called the GOP House leaders a "bunch of thugs."

Rep. Roger Koopman praised Democratic House members for their bipartisan support of his HB 567, and slammed John Sinrud's behavior as chair of the Appropriations committee.

Bob Brown called Mike Lange's "approach" "destructive and unproductive."

There is a groundswell of anger within the GOP against the House leadership. While all the newspapers are scrambling to indict both sides, the charged rhetoric and macho posturing of the House Republicans poisoned this session before it even met.

Jay Stevens said...

In any case -- believe it or not -- I'm through looking to place blame. In the spirit of compromise necessary to get a budget passed, I hereby lay down my nasty posts about the GOP House leadership.

It's a new day, and they have a clean slate.

Of course, if anybody says something stupid, I still reserve the right to jump all over them.

Montana Headlines said...

Anonymous, the conservatives that I know certainly haven't given up on the Republican party -- quite the contrary, they are getting energized by the realization that we have some serious work to do.

I showed the clip of Sales to a intelligent and conservative but not particularly political person and asked that person to describe it. Words like "measured," "statesmanlike," "firm," "well-spoken," predominated.

Which was pretty much how I thought that it would come across. Most people aren't political junkies, and don't have our conditioned responses to this or that person or issue.


If what you say is true (correct me if I'm mis-characterizing what you said), and Republicans chose property taxes specifically because it was the one thing that Democrats were most certain to be unable to compromise on -- then that is a pretty serious charge. If that is the perception on your side, that would go a long way towards helping to understand the levels of hostility toward the Republican leadership on Democrats' parts.

An explanation that seems even more likely is that Republicans simply want to cut taxes when there is a surplus, and it is too early to revisit income taxes for further changes.

Republicans ran on across-the-board property tax cuts as part of the party platform. Those elected felt obligated to pursue them.

There is also the fact that by shifting school funding as Republicans proposed, both the school-funding lawsuit and property taxes could be addressed in one fell swoop.

I think we agree that dissecting the past is a waste of effort and emotion -- and blame games contribute nothing to finding a final compromise solution.

If (and again I say if) it is true that Republicans chose property tax relief as their top priority in order to ensure that a deal wouldn't be made, and not because it was their highest legislative priority based on principle -- well, then that could actually make things much easier in the special session.

Why? Because if cutting property taxes isn't really that important to Republicans, and is so dear to Democrats' hearts on philosophical grounds that they just can't compromise on it, Democrats should be able to find something else to offer Republicans that is near and dear to our hearts. (If, that is, we want to call the final product a compromise.)

BTW, did they announce this early on, that across-the-board permanent property tax relief was off the table permanently... no discussion?

Maybe scrap all property tax relief (and that includes the $400 election-year "check in every pot"), in order to significantly cut spending -- while putting the excess in a rainy-day fund.

Or perhaps Democrats could offer to shave a certain percentage off each income tax bracket. Or both.

Let's hope that Republicans and Democrats can be creative enough to come up with things that Republicans really feel are important, and that Democrats are willing to give on.

Jay Stevens said...

As you've pointed out, all of this speculation on who wanted what and offered what is moot, because we weren't privy to the negotiations.

I'm basing my speculation on Sales' rhetoric before the session started, indicating that his goal was to derail Democratic legislation, period.

But, yes, let's hope that both sides will feel somewhat chastened by their encounters with their constituency and come to the bargaining table with humbled manners. And by "constituency" I don't mean the barking partisan base, like yrs truly, but the whole constituency.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating points.

First, wanted to note that I was lamely trying to poke fun at Jay's comments about his travels in "conservative circles," not the idea that some Republicans are unhappy with their legislative leaders. I know many Republicans are disappointed with their leaders, particularly Lange, who they think played into the governor's hands (and probably killed any plans he had to run for higher office)

I don't really get the sense, as MT Headlines argues, that conservatives are now energized to work hard. My sense is they just want to put Lange's tirade behind them and hope the party has learned some lessons from it.

I'm also going to disagree with Jay's argument that "The GOP found the one issue the Democrats wouldn't compromise on -- their progressive tax rebate -- and fought it from the beginning, obfuscating and obstructing the legislative process." I don't ever recall Dem leaders saying that's the one issue on which they would not compromise.

I don't know what priorities the party leaders set--if any--when the session began. My sense was that GOP leaders had made permanent property tax relief a top priority. As for the Dems, I'm not sure. Sometimes it seemed to be ensuring that there was full funding for education, including full-day kindergarten, and other social programs. Other times it seemed to be cracking down on out-of-state tax scofflaws or on ensuring that big corps didn't get the bulk of tax relief.

One of the odd things about this session was how partisan it got considering how much money there was to meet everyone's needs. (Kind of reminds me of what they say about campus politics: Things tend to get more heated when there's less at stake--or however that saying goes).

In any regard, with the huge surplus it shouldn't be hard, at least in theory, to come up with a compromise that gives everyone a chance to go home with something they can show voters and puff out their chests about.

I don't have any particularly strong feelings about any of this. I'll be happy to get a nice tax rebate. The ideas related to North Dakota tax relief and income tax relief are intriguing but, since there's so little time for study and debate, probably won't find many takers.