Bias Accusations & Legislative Fiscal Analysts

By Beacon Staff

The ongoing partisan kerfuffle over bookkeeping mistakes in the administration of tax rebates by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his staff has raised some intriguing accusations on the blogosphere: pro-Republican machinations by legislative fiscal division staffers – who are supposed to be nonpartisan.

Chuck Johnson, of Lee’s capital bureau, on Sept. 28 first reported the accusations by GOP chair Erik Iverson that Schweitzer was improperly administering the $140 supplements to the $400 tax cuts passed by the Legislature’s special session. It’s a complicated story and a complicated argument. From what I can discern, the dispute centers around the revenue trigger by which the additional tax rebates can be distributed. Schweitzer and his budgeting staff interpreted the language of the legislation to read that the trigger had been met to pass out the cash. Republicans pounced and said Schweitzer was handing out the rebates improperly, after a memo from Clayton Schenk of the Legislative Fiscal Division, who pointed out an incongruity in which funds contributed to that tax-rebate trigger.

Confused yet?

Then, on Oct. 4, a blogger for Left in the West, SmallTownMama, jumped off of the above tax rebate disagreement by detailing a series of incidents, making it look as though some members of the Legislative Fiscal Division were harder on Schweitzer than on previous Republican governors. I’m not in Helena and I don’t know whether the incidents SmallTownMama describes are true or not. Some of the comments on her blog posting angrily defend Schenk, described in the blog as “one of the chief republican attack dogs against democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer.”

Commentary on both Johnson’s and SmallTownMama’s above stories lambaste the GOP for standing in the way of an increased tax cut in order to sling a little political mud. Sen. John Cobb, R-Augusta, posted commentary on that blog asking anyone with proof of partisan pandering by the LFD to bring it to this week’s Finance Committee meetings. So far, no news has emerged from Helena on this issue.

Now, lawmakers are contemplating whether a special session is necessary to work out the language loophole in the budget bill.

The accusations toward Schenk are interesting. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Legislature; I only covered the most recent session and don’t have the benefit of decades of perspective like some reporters in Helena. But it seems crazy, as some commenters noted, to think that Schenk would endanger a prestigious and lucrative position working for the LFD to advance a partisan agenda. The legislative fiscal and policy aides are crucial to the functioning of the Legislature, though they can’t really be blamed for the dysfunction of the 2007 session. They do what they are asked to do, by preparing bills or fiscal outlooks by whomever asks them.

When the GOP decided to split the 2007 budget bill into multiple parts, the LFD put in several all nighters to meet the request. These staffers are invaluable, not only to lawmakers but to reporters. I relied on the time and patience of these staffers to help me understand complicated groundwater bills, budget bills, and dozens of other pieces of legislation. The staffers certainly have opinions about what works and what doesn’t – but they couldn’t care less whether one party or another comes out on top. At least that was my experience.

Some commenters on SmallTownMama’s blog also balked at Schenk’s $115,000 salary. Man oh man. That may be a high salary by Montana standards, but that doesn’t make it a high salary for someone directly responsible for the application and direction of the state’s finances just about anywhere else in the U.S. Schenk could take off and make significantly more than that in the private sector if he so chose, though it might require him to leave the state.

I didn’t intend this blog to be a defense of Schenk, but at the risk of sounding naive, I venture that Schenk, like most legislative staffers, is getting sucked involuntarily into the predictable world of partisan accusations. At a time when the spotlight is being shone on government entities that are supposed to be nonpartisan operating in partisan ways, it is admirable that journalists are scrutinizing everyone, regardless of position or party affiliation. But if Schenk is anything like most of the legislative staffers, he may actually care more about serving Montana than which party is leading Montana. Call me insane but there are even some reporters out there who feel the same way.

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