Those with long experience in the legislative arena know and fear one thing in common — a special legislative session. Why? Because they are universally called for very short periods, usually only a few days or at most a couple weeks. Laws and budgets can be changed significantly with almost no time for the citizens of Montana, who are supposed to be represented by the legislature, to even know what’s going on, let alone analyze and provide input on the bills being considered. It’s not how law should be made, nor budgets adjusted and, being in the minority in both chambers, could very well backfire on the Democrats.
Although the legislature has the power to call itself into a special session, generally it is the governor who issues the special session Call. To his credit, Gov. Steve Bullock has already said he won’t do that unless Republicans are willing “to agree to consider raising revenue.” Right now Bullock has legal authority and responsibility to adjust state budgets by 10 percent in times of revenue shortages. While the budget cuts being considered are painful and Bullock has said he “didn’t sign up to hurt people,” there is still a significant advantage in having the decision of where and what to cut coming from the Democrat governor as far as Democrat spending priorities are concerned.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the loss of legislative institutional knowledge and inexperience due to term limits — especially with special sessions — but it sure seems as though Democrat legislators requesting a special session simply don’t understand what can happen if one is actually called — and the dangers are many, especially for the minority party.
For one thing, while it’s entirely understandable that Governor Bullock would limit the Call of the Session to only bills raising revenue, neither the governor nor the minority Democrats have the power or votes to limit the session to revenue enhancing bills.
Under legislative rules, it takes 76 votes out of 150 legislators to expand the Call of the Session. What that means is that the Republicans, who have way more than the 76 required votes could, with a simple vote in the House and one in the Senate, decide to open the session to adjust not just revenue, but spending and any of the many issue areas normally considered in a regular legislative session.
So how real is the possibility that Republicans would immediately expand the Call of the Session to cut budgets instead of raising revenue? Well, consider that Sen. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee, through which all budgets and state spending must go, had this to say to reporters: “Tightening the government’s purse strings is the place to begin,” adding, “I will not support permanent tax increases during these down times.”
While it’s understandable that Democrats would want to preserve the spending priorities they feel are important to their constituents, it’s extremely naïve to believe the Republicans wouldn’t want to do the same thing. In this case, their goal would be the core Republican belief in shrinking, not growing, government — exactly as Sen. Jones has already said.
For those who have been through special sessions and know their pitfalls, the Democrat legislators asking the governor to call a special session are asking for more trouble than they know — especially given they don’t have to votes to control the agenda, let alone the outcome and it could backfire horrendously on the very priorities they hold most dear.