Session of indigestion: Helena’s due for a heaping helping of humble pie

Now that the 2007 Legislature has collapsed into its own ashes, rumor has it there’s a new menu item at the Capitol cafeteria and the Governor’s Mansion: humble pie. You cook it over a big pile of shredded bills killed for no reason other than their sponsors were from the wrong political party.  This conflagration, sometimes known as a bonfire of the vanities, should burn to embers before you bake the humble pie. Best of all, however, is dessert—a big helping of crow (no offense to my corvid friends) all the way around.

While this rumor may only be literary artifice, the disgusting end of a rather disgusting session surely merits it. It has been a long time, perhaps never, since a legislative session came to an end without accomplishing the major tasks of adopting the state’s biennial budget, setting tax policy and providing for school funding. But the historic failure to achieve what all other governors and legislatures have been able to achieve is grim fact, not fanciful fiction. What’s really amazing, given the outcome, is the political leaders all talked like they were the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Because there is so much of it, spreading blame around would be easy. The governor’s pretentiousness, the House Republicans’ self-inflicted trauma, the lack of cooperation and communication between the Senate and House, and the petty partisan bickering that dragged on and on while taking care of the state’s needs was relegated to the sidelines. Why it happened will long be the topic of speculation and many of those with long experience in the political arena are tagging term limits as the core problem. But while term limits provide a handy excuse, what we really saw was a failure of good, old-fashioned diplomacy.

Taking a look back through recent Montana history, only one thing about this session seems unusual—and that’s the projected billion-dollar budget surplus. So why the incredible meltdown when the state arguably has more money in its coffers than ever before?

A quick review of the last three decades of Montana’s governors and legislative bodies is revealing. Democrat Tom Judge faced a split legislature in ’79. His former lieutenant governor, Ted Schwinden, took over the governorship in 1981, the year in which Republicans controlled the Legislature and enacted significant tax reductions. The Dems took back the House in ’83 and the Senate in ’85. In ’87, the Republicans took back the House.

Republican Stan Stephens became governor in 1989 and only served one term, yet both of his budgets were adopted by either split legislatures or hostile Demo majorities. Marc Racicot took office in 1993, the year in which Republicans had taken the House, but Democrats still held the Senate.

All these former governors, Republican and Democrat, had to work with split or hostile legislatures, yet every one was somehow able to get their budgets passed during the regular legislative sessions.

So what’s different now? Why, with only one house controlled by Republicans, is Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer the first governor in recent Montana history to face the ignominy of failing to get a budget adopted? Even more importantly, what must change to avoid a similar outcome when the Legislature returns in special session? To that end, here are a few suggestions:

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a single sponsor to simply drop in an important bill with no one on it but the sponsor. But in past legislative sessions, it was common practice to get a significant number of bipartisan co-sponsors on important measures.  Back in “the good old days,” the signatures of prominent legislators from both parties in both houses carried weight. One would not lightly kill bills signed by powerful legislators without incurring their wrath. Having sponsors from both parties didn’t necessarily ensure passage, but it certainly made the party-line votes we saw during the 2007 session a lot less likely.

Perhaps it’s time to learn from those days of yore, do the upfront negotiations with members of the opposite party prior to introduction of the bills and get their support. It’s more work, to be sure, but this is the kind of work that builds interpersonal relationships, respect, and trust—the critical elements of diplomacy that seemed in very short supply in the recent session.

Second, maybe it’s time for legislators to start leading the legislative process again. After all, the Legislature is an independent branch of government and, at least this session, mandates from on high, such as the governor’s budget and tax plans, didn’t really seem to work all that well. Given that the Legislature is basically a 75 Democrat, 75 Republican split, why not hammer out a tax plan that encompasses some form of rebate and some level of permanent property tax relief? Rest assured, the citizens won’t gripe.  Perhaps one party or one person won’t get to take all the credit for it—but isn’t the goal to serve Montanans instead of their own political futures?

And finally, the politicians ought to sharpen their chronological focus to the task at hand. The 2008 elections seem to be weighing unduly on the actions of the 2007 Legislature, the result being the embarrassing failure we have just witnessed. Save campaigning for next year and take care of the people’s business now.

Perhaps the silver lining in the black cloud of failure is that there seems to be some efforts underway to make it work better the next time around. To his credit, Senate President Mike Cooney has already suggested a pre-session meeting of legislative leaders—and maybe even Gov. Schweitzer will attend.

Burying some egos, saving the elections for next year and talking about what’s coming before it gets here would surely help. Remember, all those other governors and split legislatures somehow managed to get the job done—as must this Legislature and governor. It’s either that or eat another hefty helping of humble pie served up by an increasingly angry electorate.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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