Special Session Idle Speculation

By Beacon Staff

Predicting, in the Legislature’s final week, whether lawmakers will be capable of reaching a budget compromise is a fool’s errand – even when you’re a reporter in Helena. Making that determination from up here in the Flathead is darn near impossible. Even so, I have a few observations about whether a special session will occur and what the implications of such an occurrence could be.

First up, Associated Press Reporter Matt Gouras wrote that Gov. Brian Schweitzer doesn’t think a special session will be necessary, “because he believes Senate President Bob Story will want to end his tenure on a high note rather than mired in a special session.”

This is a deft bit of political obfuscation by the governor in that it implies Story’s reasons for avoiding a special session are to maintain his legislative legacy. That’s a fairly petty reason for the Republican leader to help the Legislature meet its sole Constitutional responsibility, no? And does anyone have any doubt that should Story and the Senate Republicans acquiesce to the budget preferences of Schweitzer and the House, that Story will be remembered by his party – not for wrapping up the session in 90 days – but for giving in to the Democrats?

That’s not to say Schweitzer knows what the Legislature is going to do and isn’t saying. Rather, he saw an opportunity to rib Republicans and took it. Schweitzer rarely misses an opportunity to note that the executive branch is above the fray and petty squabbles of the legislative branch, and this example is no different. Does it shed any light on what lawmakers will do? Of course not.

Second, Gouras observes, very accurately, the current session “lacks the caustic partisanship of 2007’s historic failure, and instead features principled, ideological stands that are proving equally as unyielding.”

While that’s a difficult fix to be in, what the 2009 session has going for it that the 2007 session didn’t is a higher level of trust and comity between Democrats and Republicans. In 2007, Republican House leaders pulled so many procedural hijinks out of left field (or should I say right field, heh heh) including splitting the budget up into six, then eight parts, then resurrecting the original budget bill in the middle of the night at the very end of the session, blindsiding Dems, that there wasn’t even an opportunity for leaders of either party and either chamber to sit down and negotiate in good faith. Why bother? Things had gotten so bad neither party trusted the word of the other by Day 90.

Such a level of distrust simply doesn’t run as deep in the current session. That doesn’t mean lawmakers are guaranteed to break the stalemate, but a basic level of trust and mutual respect sure doesn’t hurt.

Finally, if legislative leaders and Schweitzer can’t wrap it up in 90 days, the political consequences for everyone involved will be bleak. Yes, the stimulus dollars are a complicating factor in the same way the surplus dollars made compromises more difficult in 2007. But if the state’s political leaders can’t work through that, for the second Legislature in a row, voters are going to begin to think special sessions are the norm, and why wouldn’t they? If the budget stalemate persists through next week, it could become possible that the only conditions under which legislators can avoid a special session is when the state is either dead broke, or one party controls the governor’s office, House and Senate.

Montana’s government is better than that, and I think most people know it. But what will happen between now and Monday is anyone’s guess.

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