Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

90-Day Workout

Forced compromise at the Legislature has worked well over the last decade

It won’t be long now. The 65th Montana Legislature will adjourn and our 150 state Legislators will return home after four months of hard work, plenty of politics, and much grueling policy debate.

Montanans should thank these honorable people for their service. Reasonable people can admire our unique governing process while disagreeing on the policy direction a Legislature chooses.

Routinely legislators must reconvene in Helena over the biennium to fix poor bills, finish some work, or adjust revenues and services to keep our budget balanced.

A Legislature sets the revenue estimate for Montana. The governor cannot amend this estimate nor can he veto the projection. State revenue projections and appropriating funds for services like higher education are jobs of a Legislature.

Routinely lawmakers consult the governor’s state budget director on projections. This year seems different.

The Legislature has one mandatory job: balance the state budget and spend no more than revenue estimates bring in. Sounds easy, but it’s not.

Montana continues to enjoy a divided government. One party controls the legislative process writing bills; the other, the executive, has line-item veto power.

Forced compromise has worked well over the last decade. Neither party can do much harm without the cooperation of its partner. Both deserve credit for success, both complicit in failure. We can argue about whose fault it was.

Soon the governor decides final vetoes and enactment of new laws. As the Legislature leaves Helena, the governor interprets how the majority intended to implement the state budget. Much interpretation is routinely needed.

Politics aside, the next 18 months returns power from the Legislature to the governor.   

Our legislators return home to retire the business attire to don working clothes. They will try to explain to friends, neighbors and local business owners what happened over the last four months in Helena.

The explanations can be complicated.

Lawmakers may still feel strongly after being sequestered at the Capitol for four straight months, working day to night on policy that affects every Montanan.

Montana enacted many new laws, put some money in the bank for a rainy day, and invested in the people of our state with a balanced budget. Time and locals will interpret how well that occurred.

With much policy negotiations in flux during the last week of any session, it’s difficult for anyone but the insiders to know what happened.

Things like a gas tax increase, beer sampling at Flathead Valley Community College, and lifting brewery production caps seemed poised to become law.

The Legislature again chose policy to mitigate the average property tax increases statewide by reducing rates broadly. Tax valuation caps or assistance programs were fluctuating during the waning days of another Legislature.

Last week was the constitutional deadline for our governor to determine if a bill to empower Montana to hire a statewide director to better manage parks and recreation became law.

I am hopeful lawmakers chose to build a proper historical society for our great state. Montana enjoys plenty of history and we should never forget from whence we came.

I am grateful for the work of our citizen Legislature. They have served well, embarrassed the state little, and many well represented their district.

This Legislature was just as political as ever, the majority party broke as many of its own rules as the past, and members will stretch their accomplishment story just like previous Sessions.

Yet Montana governed, and we moved forward.

Bipartisanship has clear benefits. If neither party can jam its partner, the rest of us are more likely to see moderate solutions.  That’s not rhetorically sharp enough for either party’s political wing, nor is it what most constituents are hungry to hear, but it is governing.   

Montana should reteach Washington, D.C., these traditional governing lessons.

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