Mundane Process

Many of us still believe that government can serve, do good, and fix things

By Mike Jopek

2014 ended bitter cold. The Flathead was blanketed with fresh snow as winter began. It was another great year.

One-hundred and fifty Montana Legislators are now in Helena. First up, lawmakers decide what kind of rules will police their procedures during lawmaking. Rules decide what type of clothing can be worn on the floor or how bills are rerouted to committee after passing a floor vote.

Next members will vote on House Bill 1 or the “feed bill,” which funds the operations of the 64th session. It cost taxpayers $10 million for 150 legislators to meet at the state capital for 90 days. That’s $740 spent per lawmaker per day.

Ten years ago the same amount of legislators met for 90 days in Helena and it cost taxpayers $7 million, or $520 per lawmaker per day.

Feed bills are necessary for citizen lawmakers, especially if voters favor a powerful state Legislature to negotiate with the governor on the kind of new laws to govern Montana.

The only law that must pass is the state budget. It governs spending for services like public healthcare, public education, public buildings, public roads and public protection.

The budget is negotiated with the governor, who wields a powerful line item veto, and the Legislature’s majority party leadership. At the end of the session, essentially a handful of people negotiate how a lot of public money is spent.

How many members of the Legislature feel vested in that negotiation will reflect in the budget’s roll call vote. Many will want to spend more public funds on tax breaks to some; others will want more funds spent on public education and healthcare, while some will seek more investments into public infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the budget is often the negotiation of the few. Most lawmakers will spend their 90 days of Helena time in committees listening to testimony and working bills in to hopeful laws.

That’s great work, and when done right can help a lot of people. Many lawmakers take their citizen job of governing seriously. Legislatures produce thousands of bills, hundreds of laws.

The concepts range from allowing nuclear power plants in places like the Flathead to assuring sick people can visit a doctor. In committees, members vote on thousands of amendment to the thousands of bills.

Lucky bills are voted out of committee – most are not. Bills head to the full body for debate, amendments and vote. Then maybe back to committee, and maybe back to the floor. Then bills move to the committee of the other chamber of the Legislature for a similar process. Then maybe back to the previous chamber for more amendments.

But sometime bills are jammed into committees to vanish or are “lost” in the presiding members’ desk drawers. Leadership’s “pocket vetoes” occur with uncomfortable frequently.

The Constitution allows the governor to submit amendments onto passed bills for legislative consideration. Recent Legislatures opted to send huge bills to governors at the last minute for an up or down vote and no opportunity of amendment.

This last-minute bill submission is the likely reason for the historically high amount of recent vetoes by governors. An ideological Legislature had left town.

Many of us still believe that government can serve, do good, and fix things. The politics of Helena can be quite overwhelming to new legislators. As an old-timer told me, remember whom you work for. Plus bring extra clothes; the state capitol is a cold place in winter.

The public process to lawmaking appears mundane. The Legislature’s first vote on its rules will determine a political tone and likely indicate the outcome to important policy like healthcare and public education. Voters will soon know if the 64th Montana Legislature is ideologically rigid or willing to compromise.

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