Ochenski: The silver lining 

The Dems should give Keenan's cuts a chance

Everybody expected the 2003 legislative session to be wild and it is. States across the nation are faced with their worst fiscal crises since World War II, and Montana is no exception as it’s currently $240 million in the hole. In an unprecedented move, Gov. Martz’s budget, which relied on taking $93 million out of the Coal Trust, was rejected by the majority members of her own party on the first day of the session—even before the legislators were sworn in. But that was just the start.

Having stuffed the Governor’s budget, the same joint committees then voted to revert to year 2000 budget levels. For all the hoopla in the press, the uninitiated might think that it was a surprise move by the Repubs, but apparently that was not the case. It seems impossible, but a number of people claim the move was planned and known for at least a month. If so, it begs the question of why the legislature and the Governor’s office weren’t in sync—and why so much state employee time and money was wasted on a preparing a budget that would be tossed?

That puzzling question aside, the real business before those who are running the show is how to balance the budget. Everybody expects some mix of taxes and cuts. While the tax end of the equation remains extremely uncertain, a plan to achieve spending reductions has been proposed by President of the Senate Bob Keenan.

Those who know Keenan will tell you he is a very funny guy. When asked about the daunting task facing him this session, Keenan told reporters that being a citizen legislator was “a hobby” for him–and that if he blew it, he still had his “day job.” While some would call such an attitude cavalier considering his lofty position, others would say Keenan was just being himself and telling it exactly like he sees it. Which is just what he did when asked about how the Legislature was going to deal with the cuts.

Keenan’s plan, in a nutshell, focuses on honing the budget in the joint subcommittees that are responsible for crafting each specific part of the state’s overall spending. Education, health and human services, natural resources, etc., are all handled by individual small committees of both Senate and House members. It is to these joint committees that the state agencies come to make their budgetary requests.

According to Keenan, in the past the focus was more on understanding what the mission was for the agencies, and how the programs worked. Under his new plan, those little joint committees are now going to spend more time weighing programs against each other to decide what gets funded. In theory, Keenan’s plan makes about as much sense as anything suggested so far.

But problems may arise because of the sheer volume of knowledge required to truly understand the complex machinations of government programs and spending. Having first served in the House, then come to the Senate and chaired the powerful Finance and Claims committee, Keenan is one of the Legislature’s more experienced members. But many of the new legislators lack his familiarity with how Montana’s government is structured, funded, and run.

Understand that in the era of term limits, everything is now relative. The old hands that served for 15 or 20 or 25 years are gone…termed out. While term limits brought new blood to the Legislature, they also carried away a huge body of cumulative, long-term knowledge. It takes a decade to truly understand the intricacies of even one state agency–two years past when term limits kick you out. And Montana has 18 state agencies. You see the problem. It has nothing to do with good intentions, intelligence, or hard work—these are just very large and very complex bureaucracies. Keenan knows that. He also knows his people are going to need all the time they can get to try and “get it right.”

For their part, the Dems had a mixed reaction. They applauded the rejection of Gov. Martz’s budget and, by implication, her plan to tap the Coal Trust. But they howled at the budget rollback—although the howling seems to have died down a little as they ponder the future.

If Gov. Martz remains unpopular, and with the slimming of the Republican majorities seen in the last election, it is entirely possible that the Democrats may take the Governor’s office and at least one house of the legislature in the next election. Looking ahead, it might work to the Dems’ advantage to let the Repubs trim the budget this session. As the majority party, the Repubs would be blamed for the unpopular cuts. Then, if the Dems do come to power in the near future, they inherit a leaner government—one they might actually be able to run on available revenue without immediately throwing themselves back into the “tax and spend” meat grinder that shredded their majorities back in ’91.

Given that Montana’s growth rate was less than half of one percent last year, our per capita income is at the bottom of the barrel nationally, and the economic outlook in general is bleak for the foreseeable future, the prospect of taxing ourselves out of this hole isn’t a reality. Of course, the Repubs could decide to rescind the hundreds of millions in corporate tax breaks they doled out in the last decade, but that ain’t happening, Jackson.

No one from either political party is very happy about the spending reductions—but the cuts are going to happen. The Dems are absolutely right to stand up for those in need, to protect the Coal Tax Trust, and to oppose Gov. Martz’s plan to give even more tax breaks to the wealthy. But, in the long-term interest of both the state and their party, the Dems may want to give Keenan’s idea a chance to work. It could be the silver lining to this very black cloud.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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