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Mike Dennison column mug (missoulian)

Dennison

HELENA – One week into Montana’s 2015 Legislature, one thing is clear: The conservative-moderate split in the Republican Party that determined key outcomes of the 2013 Legislature is alive and well, and set to do it again.

We watched it emerge two years ago at the 2013 Legislature, as moderate Republicans teamed up with minority Democrats to pass the state budget, a major school funding rewrite and other items ultimately supported by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

This time it took only a matter of days to spill messily out into the open, culminating in Thursday’s floor votes on the House rules, giving this same coalition more power to bring to the floor – and perhaps pass – bills that conservative Republicans have vowed to stop.

Those bills likely will include some form of Medicaid expansion that accepts millions in federal dollars to pay for health coverage for thousands of low-income Montanans.

Or the Flathead tribal water rights compact, which many farmers, ranchers, business owners and others say must be approved to avoid years of expensive water litigation.

Or campaign finance reform, aimed at shining a light on so-called “dark money” in Montana elections.

Or millions of dollars of infrastructure projects and crucial budget items yet to surface.

Legislative Republican leaders tried to put a good face on things Thursday, saying the rules vote didn’t upset the political equation all that much. Republicans still have majority control in the House and Senate, the rules change doesn’t guarantee any one bill is going to pass and it’s a long way from now until the end of the 2015 session, they said.

All true – but they can’t have been happy about the outcome.

Before Thursday’s vote, House Republican leaders had the power to bottle up just about any bill they wanted to. They could send it to a committee they knew would vote to kill the measure, and it would take at least a three-fifths majority – 60 votes in the 100-member House – to bring that bill to the floor.

Republicans have a 59-41 majority in the House. If the 60-vote rule stands, at least 19 Republicans must join all 41 Democrats to extract one of these bills from a committee.

Thursday’s deal – extracted by Democrats and moderate Republicans, after they said they had enough votes to force a similar or more onerous rules change – allows Democrats to exempt up to six bills from the 60-vote rule. The change means a simple 51-vote majority can move certain bottled-up bills from committee to the floor, for debate, a vote and possible passage.

The difference is huge. Finding 19 House Republicans to join Democrats to break out these key bills would be next to impossible. But finding 10 Republicans – well, they already had that many on board to force the rules change.

Now, this change doesn’t guarantee the passage of anything. Republican leaders may have a few parliamentary moves of their own to block certain bills, and the deal also allows them to exempt six bills from the 60-vote rule, perhaps giving them leverage with Democrats.

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But at least one leader of the GOP conservative wing, Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, said Friday he thinks the change is a “net gain” for Democrats, giving them an element of leverage they didn’t have.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, a leading member of the Republican moderates, said Friday they believe major public policy proposals deserve a debate on the floor of the House and a chance to pass with a simple majority. They shouldn’t be shunted off to a committee, where a handful of opponents can dictate their fate, he said.

“You’ve seen a concentrated effort to create more transparency in the deliberations of government,” he said.

And Bullock? He sounded pretty pleased Friday morning, saying major proposals before the Legislature deserve “an up-or-down vote.”

“At the end of the day, Montanans expect people to get their work done here, and not block the will of the majority by procedural tricks,” he said.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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