Montana Viewpoint

March 7, 2007

Legislators work in the same rarified atmosphere as nuclear scientists and lawyers; we have a special set of rules, a special kind of jargon, and we look at issues in different ways than most folks. It’s kind of like belonging to a fraternal organization with a secret handshake and password.

That’s fine when we are working amongst ourselves, but it can be a real hindrance to communication with the folks we work for if we can’t translate it. That’s partly why I started writing these articles in 1992. I thought that as long as legislators believed the world revolved around Helena and that everyone understood the jargon we used, we were in trouble.

It’s understandable; we all tend to believe people everywhere think just like we do and are kind of mystified when we find out that they don’t. But even as it may be understandable, it is a hindrance to communication; especially between legislators and the people we represent.

Comes now the Montana budget process with all its mystery, and legislators think that we can explain it to the public in terms we alone are familiar with. Truth be told, it can be hard to explain even to legislators; I remember how confused I was as a greenhorn legislator.

The Montana unitary budget—which has been in House Bill 2 for over 30 years—has six sections to it; General Government and Transportation, Health and Human Services, Natural Resources and Commerce, Corrections and Public Safety, Education, and Long Range Planning.

Now the big deal is that the Republican controlled House has turned tradition on its head and is replacing the customary unitary budget in House Bill 2 with six budget bills. Is this good or bad?

Well, from a political perspective, I think it’s great; it has given the Republicans good press coverage in a simple way, and has left Democrats fumbling for a way to explain why it isn’t a good idea.

From a budgeting perspective, it’s terrible. In fact, Representative John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, who is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where the budget begins, was reported as saying, “We are going to budget like the federal government.”

That’s not a comforting thought.

To understand why breaking the budget into six separate parts is not a good idea, you have to be able to explain why using just one budget is a good idea, and that was put in pretty understandable terms by my CPA: “It’s not a budget if it has more than one bottom line.”

First of all, a budget has to be co-coordinated. When the Legislature votes on the budget in one bill, it has to vote on it as a package. Like any bill, it can be amended, so it’s possible to add some money to a program here, or lower spending on a program there. The only real rule is that all of the changes in spending still have to add up to less than the amount of income available.

If there are six budget bills, the ability to balance them to the single bottom line gets a lot harder, because the amount of spending in each bill is arrived at without taking the single bottom line into account. Each bill is then voted on independently, and the likelihood of all six numbers adding up to the single bottom line is remote.

I am always trying to think of ways to explain things in a way that makes the mysterious clear. Sometimes I think I do OK, sometimes I think otherwise, but anyway, here’s my attempt on this topic:

Say you are a family with six kids. You decide to let them each set their own annual allowance, so you set up a single checking account with $20,000 in it, and give a checkbook to each kid. You can imagine what will happen, and I think that’s what will happen to the Montana budgeting process with six different bills.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620