On a day when the House was awash with roses, pink balloons, and heart-shaped cookies, there was anything but love between Democrats and Republicans.
As the legislature enters its middle third, any talk of cooperation and bipartisanship is getting tossed out like last week’s lasagna.
The Capitol’s corridors have been rife with speculation that House Republicans planned to split the governor’s budget bill into six or seven separate bills and vote on each individually.
In a series of confrontations last week, Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, repeatedly pressed GOP leaders on plans to split the budget, with Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, deferring.
Wednesday morning, the Democrats’ fears were realized when the House Appropriations Committee tabled House Bill 2 (PDF), which contained Gov. Schweitzer’s entire funding proposal for the next two years.
During the House floor session, Lange said the split would open up the budget process and reduce the Senate’s ability make changes to it.
“It’s in the best interest for the people of Montana to have the most transparent, clear process that we can have,” Lange said.
“Want to be critical of it? Blame me,” Lange added. “But before you blame me, let’s try to get a good product out of it.”
With a projected surplus of nearly a billion dollars, lawmakers refer to this legislature as the “session of the budget.”
For the last 30 years, House and Senate subcommittees crafted individual sections of the budget, from education to healthcare to the corrections system. Those sections work their way through committee until the House votes on the whole budget as one bill, HB2, and sends that to the Senate for consideration by the session’s 67th day.
The Senate typically then pumps more money into the budget, which is what the House Republicans are attempting to control. The House must approve any further budget changes, but unless negotiators from both chambers can agree on a change, the Senate’s version of the budget becomes the end product.
After the afternoon floor session, House leaders held a news conference to explain their move.
“Today we cleared up some confusion on the part of our Democratic colleagues,” said Lange, adding that this change would free up the budget from “unilateral action by the Senate.”
House Appropriations Chairman John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, said splitting the budget into six or seven independent bills makes Montana more like the federal government.
“Just like in Washington DC,” Sinrud said, “we will have the same clarity.”
“It was one of our goals to bring some sanity back to the budget process,” said House Speaker Scott Sales, R-Bozeman.
Lange said the individual budget bills would have sponsors by next week, make it through committee by early March and have the budget out of the House by St. Patrick’s Day.
After the Republicans wrapped up, Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, and House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls, immediately held a news conference to respond.
“They’ve literally taken the budget and put it to sleep,” Cooney said. “I think this is extraordinarily risky business.”
While the splitting of the budget doesn’t bring the state’s government to a screeching halt, Cooney conceded, it increases the likelihood that the session may be unable to finish in 90 days.
“Is it the end of the world? No,” Cooney said. “Is there a possibility for trouble? Absolutely.”
Parker said Republicans blindsided Dems by stonewalling on the proposed changes until Wednesday, and that the session is too far along for such a drastic change.
“If this was such a great idea, why wasn’t this discussed in the interim?” Parker asked. “It’s challenging to work with them when they won’t even explain what the plan is.”
Democrats also expressed skepticism that the budget-split would open up or expedite the process.
“When we’re debating eight budget bills instead of one, the writing is on the wall,” Parker said. “Delay will occur.”
“As House Democrats, what we’ve gotten for collegiality is nothing,” said Noonan of his attempts to questions GOP leaders on their budget plans last week. “As far as I can tell, twice now I’ve been attempted to be shut up on the floor.”
Sales said Republicans held off on revealing their plans because they wanted to be sure of the constitutionality and legality of their proposal.
Responding to Democratic concerns, Sales said, “I honestly think that this is going to speed up the process.”
As he wandered into the House chamber for the evening floor session, Noonan wore a pin on his lapel that seemed to foreshadow the next 58 days:
“Stick around,” the pin read. “It gets much stranger.”