Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Today’s Excuse

Any excuse to not pass pre-kindergarten may sadly do just fine with most lawmakers

In politics, any excuse will do. If the deniers of progress are loudly adamant, pretty much any reason for not doing something is reason enough.

During the legislative session, lawmakers are awarded immunity and can say anything. It’s shocking to hear what publicly comes out of the mouths of our state leaders.

The 65th session of the Montana Legislature has now convened. Lawmakers traveled from across our big state to gather in Helena for the next four months, to enact a state budget and get some stuff done.

Well, maybe get some stuff done. The only bill requiring passage is the state budget. And the only time a budget did not pass in a regular session of the Legislature was in the 60th session.

That Legislature required overtime as the House refused to pass a unified state budget. The 2007 House was led by now Senate President Scott Sales and the Senate was led by now Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

A decade ago, the Republicans of the House caucused only once during the 90 days. The one time Speaker Sales had his caucus meet, their GOP majority leader told Gov. Brian Schweitzer to “stick it up your ass” on public TV.

After cooling down a bit, the GOP later selected a fresh majority leader from amongst the caucus. But the damage was done. Their caucus meeting ended with Republicans chanting, “Stay till May. Stay till May.”

And that’s what occurred. The regular session of the 2007 Legislature ended as the constitutionally mandated 90-day clock expired. No budget passed.

House Republicans were willing to shut down state government rather than pass a budget that funded services like public kindergarten or the Highway Patrol.

In any fraternal order of lawmakers it’s emotion, not reason, that mostly rules the way. Many lawmakers behave like a bunch of coyotes, yapping hungrily over the symbolic carcass of a budget.

In every prior session, there’s been enough cool heads to avoid a full meltdown. A decade ago, Schweitzer promptly called lawmakers back to Helena to finish the work. A week home was enough time for lawmakers to hear the discontent from local Main Street Republicans.

That extended session proved productive. Homeowners each received $400 to help abate property taxes. Even the speaker and majority leader voted affirmative.

Over Sales’ objection, the governor’s Clean and Green energy incentives became law.

The state budget was ratified over the objections of Sales, the majority leader and the current Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who then served in the House.

Neither Speaker Sales, nor the Republican majority leader, nor Artnzen supported funding all-day kindergarten. Likewise the trio opposed a corresponding long-range building bill, which funded things like the Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home.

In the extended session Arntzen and her majority leader supported the policy of all-day kindergarten, just not the state funding that allowed local schools to enact a program.

Speaker Sales supported neither the policy, nor the funding of kindergarten in public schools. He was loudly joined by one-third of the Legislature in opposing statewide kindergarten.

But their excuse was weak. A decade ago Montana enjoyed a billion-dollar budget surplus. Even a huge surplus wasn’t enough for ideologues to support funding public kindergarten in Montana.

Today, policymakers are back in Helena. Gov. Steve Bullock has again put funding for pre-kindergarten into the state budget, presumably to give younger students a better start with education.

Expect many of the same naysayers to oppose these kind of public programs, just like a decade ago.

Ten years ago lawmakers had to conjure an excuse as the public budget was flush. A decade later, any excuse to not pass pre-kindergarten may sadly do just fine with most lawmakers.

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