Monday, May 7, 2007

Special session called -- tea-leaf reading begins (plus more on permanent taxing and permanent spending)

Somehow Montana Headlines had missed the news that a meeting was scheduled for today in Billings between legislative leaders. Spotting Stapleton, Sinrud, and Sales deep in conversation on Broadway early in the afternoon indicated what was up, and the report came out soon.

With the governor's call for a special session coming less than an hour afterwards, speculation can't help but run a bit wild. Did the session get called so quickly after the meeting because the legislators had discussed the possibility of calling themselves back into session without waiting for the governor? Charles Johnson, who has to be as good at reading faces as anyone, says that Democratic legislative leaders showed no signs that they knew the governor was about to announce the special session -- but who knows?

On the other hand, there are those who speculate that there must be two defections from Republican ranks -- otherwise the governor wouldn't have called the special session yet. Maybe.

But one thing is certain -- based on our unscientific polling of not particularly partisan Montanans (which is probably half the population,) public opinion isn't running nearly as much against Republicans as one would expect from reading liberal sources. The entire bunch up in Helena is viewed as ineffectual. And if public opinion isn't running against Republicans, then there isn't much point for Democrats to drag it out any longer.

Having the Democratic party get socked with a $15,000 fine by the FEC and then compounding that by flubbing an attempt to draw fire in the direction of Denny Rehberg's office can't have helped.

Rumor has it that the governor has been saying that he thinks a special session can be done in three days -- this means that he either has his two Republican defectors or he has decided to compromise.


If compromise is really in the works, then barring something really creative, it would have to mean an agreement on property tax cuts/credits. But there doesn't seem to have been evidence at the legislative meeting in Billings today that such an agreement has been reached. Which means that Democrats either have either pocketed their two Republican votes or there is diversionary smoke being blown.

Mike Dennison's article (linked above) on property tax cuts correctly reports that the Democrats' talking points have been that there is no such thing as "permanent" anything -- subsequent legislatures can undo anything a previous legislature has done.

But the questions have to be boiled down to these: what do we want it to be easier for a legislature to do -- to raise taxes or to cut them? to increase state spending or to cut it?

If we want it to be easy to raise taxes and easy to keep spending levels rising -- the Democratic plan is the way to go, since their tax credits will be one-time and the amount of ongoing spending they want to add is far greater. All Democrats have to do to have Montanans pay more property taxes next year than this year is nothing. And increases in ongoing spending won't register next session as an increase, but rather as the status quo.

On the other hand, with the Republican proposal, the legislature would specifically have to raise property taxes in the next session in order for Montanans to pay more taxes. Are their property tax cuts "permanent?" No, but it will take work to undo them, and the legislature will have to explain to Montanans why they need that extra money.

Same for spending. Republicans want to shift much of the ongoing spending increases proposed by Democrats into one-time spending. A subsequent legislature, if they want to spend that much money again (and if they have it,) will need to vote specifically to increase that spending again.

In short, regardless of whose plan is followed, a subsequent legislature can tax and spend as much (or as little) as they want. But how easy it is to do each depends in large part on what prior legislatures have done.

All one has to do is recall the squealing from Democrats about the Republican "six-pack" that was substituted for HB2.

No prior legislature could bind a future Montana House to use a single omnibus spending bill like HB2. But when the Republican controlled House did something different from what previous legislatures had set as the standard, they proved that changing legislative course isn't as easy as Democrats glibly say it is when they are poo-pooing Republican proposals for what Democrats like to call "so-called permanent" property tax cuts.

Needless to say, the Montana Headlines view is that it is a good thing for legislatures to be in the position of having to explain why they want to take more of our money from us. We think it is a good thing for them to have to explain why they need to spend more money when there is a surplus -- rather than realizing that maybe a surplus means that it wasn't necessary for Montanans to have had quite so much money taken from them that year.

Democrats express concern about whether there will be money to "pay for" property tax cuts in the future. Leaving aside the fact that this is thinking about it backwards, one wonders why they aren't equally concerned about whether there will be money to pay for their proposed ongoing spending increases in the future.

We will find out soon enough what they think, and what has been decided for us.

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