When the cat’s away 

Without Schweitzer, the lege loses its way

Montanans watching the Legislature last week are probably scratching their heads over what, exactly, is going on at the capitol—and they have every right to be mystified. Gov. Brian Schweitzer spent his week on the East Coast raising campaign money from D.C.’s K Street firms, the same K Street he has so often demonized in the past for the undue influence its high-end lobbyists exert on government. And while the cat was away, the House mice did play—and they weren’t playing nice.

Perhaps the governor thought he had everything so wired he could afford to split the state in the middle of a legislative session and everything would be just fine. But that’s not quite the way it turned out. In fact, more than a few things went awry, including the fate of his $6 billion budget bill and the Treasure State Endowment bill that funds infrastructure projects for cities and towns across the state.

For those new to Montana, the Treasure State Endowment Program, or TSEP as it’s more commonly known, came into existence about 15 years ago. The concept was to create a “trust within a trust” under the protection of the state’s Coal Trust, which requires a three-quarters majority of both houses to tap—a majority that’s rarely been attained.

The Treasure State account continues to build every year, producing millions in interest earnings, which are then doled out to local government entities via a competitive grant program. As one might suspect, every year there are more applications than money, so the Legislature is presented with a prioritized list of those needs deemed most worthy, and then funds them to the limit of the available interest dollars, which came to about $17.3 million this year.

But last week, something happened and the traditional roles of the Democrats and Republicans flipped. While the Dems are perhaps too well known for their spending proclivities, it was the Republicans who came in with an amended bill that appropriated an additional $15 million from the projected state revenues to fund the remaining 25 projects on the list.

The Democrats, however, opposed that plan and, with the help of a couple of legislators from the other side of the aisle, voted en masse to kill the bill during House debate. The Dems were ostensibly voting down the extra dollars in an attempt to preserve the governor’s budget in its current form—which doesn’t include the extra millions for the additional water and wastewater projects.

But since the governor’s budget already includes hundreds of millions in new spending and hundreds of new employees on the state payroll, fighting over an additional $15 million to fund local infrastructure projects seems a strange stance for the Dems to take—especially given the governor’s support for a new local option sales tax to address exactly these kinds of local infrastructure needs. Moreover, the Republican proposal falls into the spending parameters set forth by the administration: one-time money for one-time projects. Given that, the opposition to funding the infrastructure projects of local governments by Dems and the Gov’s office is a baffling tactic that may well crumble soon.

Meanwhile, Mike Lange, the fiery Majority Leader of the House Republicans, has announced that the Repubs will bust the major budget bill, HB 2, into as many as eight separate bills. Lange and his Republicans feel disrespected by Gov. Schweitzer and are using the limited leverage of their House majority to fight back. Whether they’ll finally get some respect is unknown, but their strategy has certainly tossed both the governor’s office and its legislative Democratic allies into a dither.

Since 1977, most of the state budget has been rolled into one massive bill that details all the agencies, their divisions, and the amount appropriated to each. Republicans argue that the House, where the Montana Constitution requires the spending bill to originate, gets overridden by the Senate in the process—and they don’t want that to happen again. For its part, the Senate indeed has the option of making whatever changes they want to the bill, sending it back to the House and then, if they feel like it, simply adjourning. The House then has little choice but to take the Senate’s version or send the state into a crisis of unfunded government.

If you buy the logic of House Republican leaders, breaking the budget bill into a number of bills will still fund all the government agencies at the level upon which the Legislature and governor can agree. To do so, however, will require passage of all the bills, and having eight separate bills gives the House the ability to hold any one bill hostage to negotiations between the House, the Senate and the governor—and indeed puts them on a more even footing in the power struggle over how the budget’s billions of dollars are spent.

Some, however, say the Republican strategy is more about crashing the process than debating how our money gets spent. In this regard, they point to former state Sen. Bob Keenan, now an adviser to House leaders, who infamously threatened Schweitzer and the Democrats with a “scorched earth” policy last session. If the process crashes and the Legislature can’t get its work done in 90 days, everyone will look bad—but Schweitzer will look worst of all, since he’s supposed to be leading the state.

What will happen is anyone’s guess, but the Republicans say they’ll announce their intentions on the budget bill within days. Montanans, meanwhile, are fully justified in wondering what’s going on at the Legislature when Republicans want to spend more, Democrats vote against funding local infrastructure projects, and the governor is off hobnobbing in Washington, D.C.

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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