Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gazette gives out statesmanship awards -- Montana Headlines offers the Gazette editors some modest math suggestions

The Billings Gazette seems to have the same problem that Mike Lange was criticized for having -- not knowing when to remain silent.

The governor got his budget, essentially unchanged from what was originally proposed. He got his $400 election-year "check in every pot." There was virtually nothing that was originally proposed from a budgetary point of view that went the Republicans' way. One would think that enough to satisfy the Gazette editors, but apparently not.

No, there just had to be a final editorial defining statesmanship on the part of a Republican: whoever voted with the Democrats was a statesman. Whoever didn't vote for their proposals wasn't. Let's take a look at a few highlights from the editorial:

The compromise that allowed lawmakers to complete their first and most crucial job was, in the end, possible only because a small number of Republican legislators joined most of their Democratic colleagues in support of a budget compromise.

The editorial thus begins with a fallacy: that the final bill was a compromise. How exactly does a budget that is not substantively different from what the executive requested a compromise? If the Gazette is going to label this a compromise, they need to point out the substantive ways in which this was a true compromise on spending. Was a 0.6% reduction in spending from the
Democratic Senate's bill (one that brought spending back to what the governor requested) a significant compromise?

If the "no" voters had their way, the special session would still be running and costing taxpayers money.

Now, the Gazette gives the reader a false choice: vote for the Democratic spending proposals as written, or stay in session with legislators spinning their wheels. The editors seem very concerned about $250,000 in special session costs, and indignantly take up the mantle of fiscal responsibility by advocating passing the bills and going home in order to save money.

There are other alternatives. We're no budget wizards, but let's throw out a few numbers -- and we'll try to round up and give the benefit of the doubt at every point, to account for the fact that we haven't run this by any legislative budget analyst and may be completely off.

The Senate's budget was $7.9 billion, of which 40% was general fund money. We'll ignore the federal taxpayers' portion of the tab and stick to state general fund. That makes for about $3.2 billion.

Now let's suppose that a real compromise had taken place. The governor wanted (and got) a 23% increase in spending, while Republicans would probably have wanted something on the order of twice the rate of inflation. Inflation has been roughly 2.5% in 2007, so double that to make it 5%, and double that to account for the fact that this is biennial spending -- 10%.

Now, we should be able to agree that the legislative races were essentially a tie. Democrats controlled the more powerful chamber due to a defection (and would have controlled it anyway, since one doubts that Lt.Gov. Bohlinger would have voted with his own Republican party on tie-breakers,) but Republicans had more votes cast for them statewide. The governor is Democratic, so call him equal to a house of legislature, and since the governor's race is winner-take-all we can't titrate that one. So in this hypothetical compromise, rather than being met half-way at 16%, the governor would get 2/3rds (67%) of the increase in spending he asked for.

But wait, there's more! To be generous, we'll spot another 3% for Mike Lange's expletives, and another 5% for the fact that Republicans are just plain nasty creatures who really ought to be forced to move to Wyoming -- just to round it up and give the governor a hefty 75% of the increase he wanted. Meeting 3/4 of the way like that would amount to about a 19% increase in general fund spending -- about 4 times the rate of inflation (wouldn't we all like our wages to get increases at that rate!)

A quick calculation (again rounding up) translates that into a $3.1 billion general fund budget, as opposed to $3.2 billion. That would be $100 million less in spending in this theoretical compromise (and still a hefty $500 million increase.)

Supposing the legislature special session costs $50,000 a day (the number thrown around was $38,000 but we'll round it up to be sure,) this means that the legislature would have to stay in session 365 days a year for 5 1/2 years in order spend that kind of money.

Let's say that the steaks were 2 inches thick, and all of the whiskeys were doubles, and call it 2 1/2 years -- in other words they would have to stay in session past the end of the next general session to spend $100 million.

There were about 6 weeks remaining until the drop-dead date of July 1. Working 6 days a week at $100,000 a day (those 2 inch thick steaks and double-shot whiskeys again) all the way to that deadline, that would mean a cost of $3.6 million for the longest possible special session at this ridiculously high hypothetical cost.

Now, just suppose that this hypothetical legislature arrived at the Montana Headlines hypothetical compromise, saving $100 million in spending.

There would have been a net savings to the Montana taxpayer of more than $96 million dollars.

So what is the fiscal problem? The legislature being in special session, as the Gazette claims, or just plain spending too much money in the budget?

Perhaps the Gazette might have saved us all a lot of money if they had been calling for statesmanship on the part of Democrats, urging them to make real compromises with Republicans. But statesmanship, Gazette-style, isn't defined as Democrats giving up anything to Republicans, is it?

The Gazette editors scold the intransigent Republicans who didn't vote for the "compromise" by praising the few who did, saying that "they understand that getting everything one wants is not an option."

Well, actually, apparently it is. Just ask the governor.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. If the Gazette editors were smart, they would hire you to write columns for their opinion pages in order to bring some diversity and thoughtful counter points to their opinion pages. Such a move would help the Gazette's bottom line by giving the many readers who disagree with the Gazette's editorials a reason to keep subscribing. It also could also help draw in people who don't subscribe to the Gazette because they see it as one-sided. That's my free advice and, while I think it is good advice, I'm afraid they won't be approaching you with an offer any time soon....

Ed Kemmick said...

Put me down in favor of the same proposal. Heck, I'd even write a letter of recommendation. The conservatives need you. I'm not sure they deserve you, but they need you...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the endorsement, which I think is sincere. Just as I am sincere in wanting to see strong and profitable newspapers in Montana that can aggressively cover politicians and government. But the only way to really have strong newspapers is to have a strong buy-in from consumers--and that is hard to get if half the potential audience feels their views are not taken seriously or are treated unfairly or, even worse, treated with contempt. One sign of the problem is that, on the editorial pages, liberal letter writers vastly outnumber conservative letter writers. Liberals see newspapers as their forums; conservatives do not.

By hiring a conservative columnist, the Gazette could send a signal that it takes seriously other points of view. In fact, the Lee newspapers as a whole could go together to hire a conservative columnist since they all lean to the left to one degree or another in their editorial policies. (and again, Montana Headlines obviously would be a good choice--if he/she were willing to do it).

Not only would such a hire give some reassurances to a huge chunk of readers and potential readers, but it would make the editorial pages a hell of a lot more interesting. There would be some new ideas kicked around and some provocative debate. This could be a valuable service to the state, and a big improvement over the same old predictable mush we now get. Such a columnist could also fill a badly needed watchdog role for state government, particulary the executive branch. But while this idea would be a great business move for Montana newspapers, I harbor no illusions tht it will ever happen. I fear that the folks in the newsrooms really believe they are doing a fine job right now presenting readers with a diversity of opinions. It is a belief that is going to end up biting them in the butt....