Montana Viewpoint
March 19, 2007

Montanans must be scratching their heads about what’s going on at the Montana Legislature over the budget. What is the big deal? Why can’t they get along? We didn’t send them there to fight.

Well, no, we didn’t, but we do expect the people we send to Helena to act on principle and Democrats and Republicans have different principles in significant areas such as health care, education, and government spending in general. That’s where we should expect a legislator to take a stand, which is not the same as fighting.

Whether or not the public agrees, the political parties are always juggling for an advantageous position in the hope of advancing their arguments into action. So it’s not unexpected that House Republicans want to have some leverage over Democrats in negotiations on the state Budget. The dynamics reflect the frustration of a legislative house with a lesser ability to have the final say. Here’s why.

The state Budget always begins in the House of Representatives; that’s in the Constitution. For the past 30 years the Budget has been contained in one bill (House Bill 2), so it has to be adopted as a package deal. But when the House passes the Budget to the Senate, they also relinquish their control of it to the Senate. If the House and Senate are controlled by the same party, this is no big deal; when they are of different parties, it is.

That’s because the Senate controls the budget from that point on. In the Senate, changes are invariably made, and then the Budget goes back to the House for approval of those changes. If the House does not approve, the Budget has to go to a “Conference Committee” where differences are sorted out.

What is generally just referred to a “the Conference Committee” is actually two conference committees, one from the House, one from the Senate; each of which is made up of three members; two from the majority party and one from the minority party.

Both of those conference committees have to vote in favor of a motion for it to pass. If a member of the conference committee moves to, say, decrease funding for the Department of Corrections, and the House Conference Committee votes yes, but the Senate Conference Committee votes no, the motion fails and the status quo stays put.

That means that whatever the Senate has put into the budget will pretty much always stay in the Budget, because the Senate Conference Committee can always cast the deciding vote. After the Conference Committee finishes with the budget, it goes back to each house for a vote. Since we can’t adjourn without a budget, both houses have to eventually accept it whether they like it or not.

That’s why the 2007 House has split the budget into eight parts. They think they will be able to have—if not greater control—better press coverage of the process; and that hypothetically translates to scoring political points.

While the Legislature may regard this as a blood sport—and it can be a lot like one—it’s not the best way to get the job done. Budgeting is really pretty tedious and methodical, and it should be, because you are making serious decisions. Adding the element of haste to it can lead to some pretty serious mistakes, and we get paid just as much to make mistakes as we do to not make them.

But I’d like to end this article on a positive note, so let me tell you about the Senate Taxation Committee that I chair, and about two of the many occasions the Republicans on the committee have taken the initiative to make sure that bills sponsored by Democrats worked.

One bill that was similar to a very controversial bill in House Tax passed out of Senate Tax by a vote of eight to one. That’s because Republicans on the committee sat down with representatives of the Petroleum industry and the Department of Revenue to iron out problems in a bill to withhold taxes on out of state mineral royalty owners.

The bill we have probably spent the most time on so far was a bill to give low income families a tax credit for weatherizing their home to cut heating costs. We took a bill that we all knew was too expensive to pass and refined it so that it was within reason, then passed it unanimously.

Frankly, that action should destroy any stereotype that exists about Republicans not caring about low income people or about conserving energy costs. They care just as deeply as we Democrats do, and I am proud to serve with such conscientious legislators.

That’s the good news, and don’t you forget it!

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