Deal or no deal?: Rushing into the Legislature’s sudden special session

Montanans have every right to find themselves confused by Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s Monday afternoon announcement that legislators would be called back to a special session beginning on May 10. The short notice apparently revolves around a deal that was reached between the governor’s office and a handful of House Republican legislators during a secret meeting last weekend. But House and Senate leaders from both parties who were left out of the meeting reacted like deer caught in the headlights when the news broke, which begs the question: Deal, or no deal?

By the time you read this, the Legislature will have returned to Helena and will be holding hearings on the weighty issues contained in the governor’s call of the session. Specifically, setting the state budget for the next two years, crafting a tax rebate/relief policy, deciding what major capital building projects will be undertaken, funding schools, laying out tax breaks for energy companies and re-establishing an education trust fund.

To be sure, these are significant, complex issues that spend billions of taxpayer dollars. Yet as of this writing—less than 48 hours before the special session begins—not a single bill is available for public review on the Legislature’s website, since all have only just been requested or are being drafted. Nor are there any fiscal notes available, which lay out how much the bills will cost, where the money will come from, what the long-term impacts may be, and what programs or entities will receive the funding.

What is interesting to note is that there appear to be bill draft requests from both Republicans and Democrats on the same issues, such as tax breaks for energy development, which would suggest that there’s a bill from the governor’s office and, if the rumors are right, one from the energy corporations. The same goes for education funding.

Gov. Schweitzer, dubbing himself “an optimist,” says the special session will be over and done within three days flat and “they’ll be home for Mother’s Day.” Perhaps he’s right since, after all, the details of the secret deal haven’t been released so no one else is really in a position to make such a prediction. 

What’s troubling about that, however, is that it pretty much relegates hundreds of thousands of Montanans who are paying the taxes and living with the result of the legislation to the role of spectators. Without the details of the bills available for review and comment, no one can let their legislators know how they feel about the deal. Maybe we’ll like the idea of giving big transmission line companies tax breaks for exporting power out of Montana—or maybe we won’t. Maybe we want all-day kindergarten—or maybe we don’t. Maybe the tax rebates and relief will make us all dance with joy—or maybe not.

No need to belabor the point, but it’s one worth thinking about. After being unable to resolve these issues in the full 90 days of the regular session, there can be little doubt that the general public is pretty much disgusted. If you doubt it, just read a few of the vitriolic letters to the editor in papers across the state. Meanwhile, no one wants to spend yet more public money to bring the Legislature back to town to finish the job, and you can’t blame them for that.

But somehow, shorting the opportunities for public involvement in our own legislative proceedings doesn’t necessarily seem like a great idea, either. I mean, every single Montanan from the youngest to the oldest will be affected by these measures. The impacts from the bills, both good and perhaps some that are unintended or unforeseen, will go on for years. And after all, these are our tax dollars that are being doled out and we have every right to know who is getting them for how long, for what purposes, who will pay and who will benefit. 

To that end, it seems unrealistic to expect our legislators to deal with this panoply of heavy lifting in three short days. In the drive to stuff the legislation through in as short a time with as little debate and consideration as possible, perhaps we will be treated to the spectacle of the party-line votes that were so common in the regular session. This may well be the time when Montanans should heed the old saying “penny wise and pound foolish” and take a little longer to consider our future.

Plus, there’s the nagging issue of the House and Senate Republican leadership. While House Majority Leader Mike Lange was reportedly in on the secret meetings to cut the deal, Speaker Scott Sales and Appropriations Chair John Sinrud were not. Both of those men have considerable power to toss a monkey wrench into the works. Sales, for instance, schedules the bills for hearings while Sinrud can tie up the appropriations bills in committee.

Should House Appropriations decide to move slowly on the budget or long-range building measures, there is literally nothing the governor or Senate can do. And if they decide to table a bill, it will take 11 Republican House members to vote with all the Democrats to blast a bill out of committee.  Maybe the deal will deliver those votes if and when they’re needed. But when push comes to shove, it will be tough for that many Republicans to break ranks with their caucus—especially if they have to do it repeatedly.

Perhaps, as the governor says, “the deal” is done and it will fly through.  But since the general public hasn’t yet been allowed to see the details it’s daunting to be told to simply place our blind trust in politicians on such important issues. Deal or no deal? We’ll soon find out.

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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