Weekly Posting of the Conservative Cow Doctor


Passing Stones

In early January, I mentioned the epidemic of writer’s block occurring prior to the legislative machinery kicking out intriguing news stories. By the middle of the session there is news everywhere, so the difficulty for reporters is separating the big story of the week from the chaff. Tuesday morning was the first of two days scheduled for floor discussions of Montana’s big spending bill, HB2, and the House chamber was packed with television cameras, microphones and journalists poised to record history. Typically, this is the biggest news day of the session, but this year it flopped.

This was my fourth go-round with HB2 and typically, legislators are quick to the microphone with lots of posturing and vocalizing, but very little production. Imagine being trapped in a room with a bunch of Tom cats trying to pass bladder stones and you will have the proper picture. (Those of you unfamiliar with Tom cat behavior should substitute “water belly steer” for a similar analogy.) I dread this part of my job. Normally, each one of HB2’s five sections is brought individually before the entire chamber for discussion with the Democrats offering endless amendments increasing spending. The limit where they no longer feel charitable giving away your money, simply has never been reached, so it may not actually exist. With tears and quivering voices they passionately offer sacrifice after sacrifice which costs them nothing. Because of rule 61-39, (61 Republicans, 39 Democrats), they are rarely successful.

Conversely, Republicans come prepared with dozens of amendments trimming the budget. They are not as good at posturing as the Democrats, so their floor speeches are factual and flat. For the GOP to ever be competitive on budget day, we need a Republican accountant who can cry like Sally Struthers while explaining tax impacts on the economy using the velocity change formula. We are not quite there, our delivery still needs polishing.

Dreading two action-packed days filled with emptiness, I trudged into the capitol for an early morning Republican caucus. I had packed a double lunch the night before because the only thing worse than suffering through a full day of meaningless posturing, was doing so while hungry. Word swept through the room a deal had been cut with the Democrats. If Republicans did not offer any amendments, neither would they and suddenly our two-day marathon might be finished in an hour. The gavel pounded launching a tirade of warm and fuzzy floor speeches with both parties praising each other for their bipartisan efforts. It stretched into a nauseating 80 minutes.

Here is the scoop on HB2: In the form it left the House, HB2 spends about 1.2 percent more for the upcoming biennium than the last one. I would have preferred actual cuts, but such was impossible with this legislature and this governor. Because this first House vote is mostly procedural, the vote was unanimous, so HB2 now moves to the Senate. When it comes back from the Senate is when the true and final fight begins, but we all seem to be ignoring the two elephants in the living room. First, Montana’s pension system is $4 billion out of balance and is not addressed in HB2. Second, our federal government is broke, yet 44 percent of our budget is federal funds. There is a reckoning coming and I no longer think we have the self-discipline to avoid it. When our economy collapses under the weight of federal debt and failing pensions, every American will scream like a Tom cat passing a urinary stone, but apparently it will take a complete crash for us to begin the path to restoration.

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