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Barroom brawl

Post-session, Schweitzer and lege duke it out

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Montanans can be excused if they find the post-legislative battle between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Legislature over certain amendments to the budget bill somewhat confusing. Even political wonks are wondering what’s going on, since, in essence, it appears that both Schweitzer and the Legislature are trying to accomplish the same thing: determine whether state agencies are operating efficiently. Unfortunately, like two patrons arguing over beers about which road to take to the same destination, the disagreement has flared into a full-fledged brawl that will likely wind up in front of a judge.

The idea that government can and should operate more efficiently is not something that either Gov. Schweitzer or the Legislature thought up on their own. In fact, the idea that it might be possible at all was popularized nationally back in 1992 with the release of a book titled Reinventing Government.

One passage from the book, which quotes a 1986 speech by Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, pretty much sums up what so many have already observed about government operations: “In government, the routine tendency is to protect turf, to resist change, to build empires, to enlarge one’s sphere of control, to protect projects and programs regardless of whether or not they are any longer needed.”

To cure the ills of stale and inbred bureaucracies, the authors of Reinventing Government champion an “entrepreneurial government” model that “searches for more efficient and effective ways of managing.”

Montana’s first governor to publicly embrace this theory was Marc Racicot. To achieve “efficient and effective” government, Racicot initiated a massive reorganization of state agencies. Unfortunately, when all the various state bureaucracies had been renamed, merged, melded and moved, the end result turned out to be just the opposite of Racicot’s goal: government cost more—much more—and operated just about the same, or maybe a little worse, since few among the general public were now certain which agency was responsible for what duties.

Skipping forward a decade, gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer promised he would appoint a council of business people to review state agency programs and operations and suggest ways to save money. Repeatedly, Schweitzer pointed to the success of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who found hundreds of millions in savings through a similar examination of government operations.

Seeking to keep his campaign promise after being elected, Gov. Schweitzer introduced legislation in the 2005 session to set up his government review council. Unfortunately, the Legislature wouldn’t go along and the bill died. In its stead, the Legislature added about three dozen requirements to HB 2, the general appropriations bill, forcing agencies to prepare and submit various reports on state programs and how they function—which is when the brawl broke into the open.

For his part, Gov. Schweitzer cites an earlier opinion issued by Greg Petesch, the Legislature’s chief legal counsel, saying Montana’s Constitution requires that the “general appropriations bill shall contain only appropriations for the ordinary expenses of government.” Schweitzer said the Legislature’s requirements in the budget bill were “invalid, unconstitutional language,” and that the Legislature is trying to “invade the province of the executive in administering funds appropriated by the Legislature by micromanaging the agencies of government.” With several strokes of his pen, Schweitzer crossed the language out of the budget bill prior to signing it.

There’s only one problem: The Legislature was adjourned by the time Schweitzer edited the reporting requirements out of the budget bill and, according to the Legislature’s attorney Petesch, Schweitzer does not have the constitutional authority to remove the reporting requirements from the bill after the Legislature is adjourned. Schweitzer, however, says the opinion of the Legislature’s attorney is not binding on his office—which is a separate branch of government—and that his legal counsel says it’s perfectly legal for the governor to strike the language.

One of those threatening to sue Gov. Schweitzer over the issue is veteran legislator Sen. John Cobb, who served 15 years in the House of Representatives and has been in the Senate since 2001. Although Cobb is a Republican, this is not about partisan squabbles.

Way back in the early ’90s, Cobb and other legislators began trying to implement “benchmarking,” by which state agencies would set defined goals and then report back to the Legislature on their progress in meeting those goals. To Sen. Cobb’s way of thinking, it’s the Legislature’s duty to track the billions of dollars state government spends every year. Now Cobb says a lawsuit seems unavoidable because Schweitzer has “set a precedent about what can be done with House Bill 2 after we leave. We need to find out if he can legally do that.”

Of course, for most Montanans, this means almost nothing. Like a barroom brawl, it’s something that should be taken outside and settled. But that is unlikely to happen. Instead, Montanans may well be treated to the grim spectacle of one branch of government suing another over which path to take toward the same end—and wasting public tax dollars in the process.

Having cruised through his first legislative session with barely a scratch, it seems incongruous that Gov. Schweitzer should now find himself bogged down in a post-legislative dispute of this magnitude. Sure, the governor’s office is a separate branch of government, duly elected by Montana’s voters—but so is the Legislature, and every one of its 150 legislators was likewise elected by the voters to represent them in the affairs of state.

Since this brawl, at its core, is about determining government efficiency, it would be best if both sides keep their eye on the original goal, knock off the wasteful fighting, and put their heads together to move Montana’s government forward. After all, isn’t that what we elected them to do?

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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