Analysis: Breaking Down the Historic House Budget Vote

By Beacon Staff

Following the House’s historic unanimous March 19 vote on the state’s primary budget bill, Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, released a statement noting that the measure passed after a “smooth, acrimony-free floor session.”

“This is exactly the kind of session we’ve been striving for from the beginning: More work and less politics,” Blasdel said. “Neither side wants to waste the people’s time with speeches and bickering.”

Blasdel said members of the House appropriations committee from both parties did “good work” and “we respect the work of the appropriations committee.” The speaker added that the budget is not even 2 percent over the last biennium, which is less than the inflation rate. It appropriates $9 billion in state and federal funds for state agencies, public schools and the university system.

“Bipartisan cooperation doesn’t mean agreeing on everything,” he said. “It means a focus on results, rather than on scoring points. That’s what we’ve done today. More work and less politics.”

Blasdel may generally be right about more work and less politics, though the two can’t be entirely separate at the Legislature. Work in Helena, of course, largely involves politics, but the speaker’s sentiments on the benefits of reduced bickering ring true. Indeed, many observers found it refreshing to see less of the ugly type of politics: acrimony, bitterness and gridlock.

But the final vote was, in fact, the result of politics, though more of the calculated, if not cooperative, variety than the reactionary kind. Leaders from each party agreed shortly before the March 19 House floor session to drop their anticipated amendment proposals and pass the budget unanimously, bypassing a potentially long debate to underline that most of the proposal has strong bipartisan support.

Since both sides apparently saw so much good in the budget, caucus leaders figured it would be better to run with what they had, in a show of unanimous bipartisanship, than risk letting a bitter debate chip away at an overall solid product – and perhaps risk setting a poor policymaking precedent as the legislative session hits its stretch run.

A byproduct of the strategy is that it ratchets up pressure on the Senate. It has also led critics – particularly Democrat supporters – to say that their elected representatives caved on their principles, such as family-planning funding. Now the Senate and its committees may have a fair amount of work left to do before the final bill is passed on to the governor.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte, a Democrat who previously spent four terms in the House, said from where he stands it already appears the House’s strategy on the budget vote is lending bipartisan strength to other policy discussions. In a House where they are outnumbered 61-39, Democrats must choose their battles wisely.

“Democrats in the House tried their level best just a couple days earlier to get the amendments on House Bill 2 to get family and women’s preventative health care and got shut down,” Sesso said.

If Democrats had continued to push the issue on likely losing gambles, Sesso said “they were at risk of getting things taken out of the bill that were already there and that they liked.”

“They made their bargain and I think you’re already seeing it pay off,” he said.

As examples, Sesso points to the GOP-dominated House recently moving forward two Democrat-sponsored pension reform bills. He believes Democrats will also have an audible voice in jobs bill talks and other policy discussions, where that might not have been the case if the big budget debate had broken down into bitterness.

“Acrimony and a protracted debate on House Bill 2 would have set a poor table for serving up all these other major pieces,” he said.

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