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What's Going on in our State Houses?

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What's Going on in our State Houses?

Some Government 101


Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you probably caught the news that the American public is somewhat discontented with government these days; that voters expressed their discontent in last November’s elections; and that this year’s crop of legislators are acting on what they believe is a ‘mandate for change’ to propose sweeping legislative reforms not only in the national Congress, but throughout the states as well.

If you live in Montana or Idaho, you’ve probably also noticed that your state has been getting some national press.

In Montana, the Missoulian has drawn attention to Rep. Bob Wagner’s (R-Hamilton) appearance with CNN’s Anderson Cooper regarding his ‘birther’ bill, a Slate.com story about state proposals for a return to the gold standard (where Wagner again made an appearance), and Salon.com’s piece (Tea Partyers Gone Wild) where Montana got special mention.

Idaho has also come in for its share of scrutiny, especially regarding State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s sweeping reform plans for public education in the state, although education issues in Idaho have been largely overshadowed by what’s going on in Wisconsin. Yet by the end of February, the Senate had voted to eliminate tenure for new teachers, and restrict what local teacher’s unions can bargain for in their contracts.

Nullification, unions, education, marijuana and wolves... each day seems to bring a new topic of debate and it can be hard to keep up.

But not impossible, especially if you’re comfortable using a computer.

Idaho makes it fairly easy. The state’s legislative website lists everything your legislators are considering in Boise today, and keeps you up-to-date on just where they all are in the process. This includes all 202 bills, 17 concurrent resolutions, two joint memorials, four proclamations and two resolutions in the House (the work of your representatives), along with 135 bills, 6 concurrent resolutions, two joint memorials, one joint resolution, one proclamation and one resolution from the Senate (your senators at work).

Okay, relatively easy. On the Idaho legislative website you can click on any bill or other piece of legislation and read the text of the bill, read a statement of purpose for the given legislation, and a statement of the fiscal impact of the same. The bills are organized for searching both by number and by subject.

Start at www.Legislature.Idaho.gov and choose “bill center.”

Montana’s legislative website is not quite as user-friendly as the one for Idaho, but from www.Leg.Mt.gov you can choose ‘bills for the 2011 session’ and search for a particular bill by number, subject or primary sponsor and, if you don’t know any of that information, you can scroll down the page and select “List all introduced and unintroduced bills.” These are not ‘pretty’ pages and are slightly more difficult to search than the same in Idaho, but the information is still all there.

Montana lists 598 bills, 21 joint resolutions and one rules resolution in the House, plus 391 bills, 15 joint resolutions and two resolutions in the Senate.

Sheesh. And this is supposedly the result of our anti-government backlash.

Flashback to civics classes here. A bill is the first step in something becoming a law. Both houses of the legislature develop and vote on bills, but the other house must also vote in favor before the bill becomes law. A bill from the House will be designated H or HB followed by the bill number, and a bill from the Senate is S or SB and again, is followed by its number.

A resolution (HR, SR) is a formal motion. Non-binding resolutions are a way for politicians to express their opinion as a body on something they can’t otherwise vote on. Substantive resolutions apply to essential legal principles, while procedural resolutions, like they sound, deal with procedures for administration.

A joint resolution, (HJR, SJR) on the other hand, does, if passed by both houses, become law, unless vetoed by the Governor.

For all practical purposes, there is no difference between a joint resolution and a bill, as they both can end up becoming law if adopted. 

A concurrent resolution (HCR, SCR) is one adopted by both chambers, but without the force of law.

So far we’ve defined the work of our legislators as making law, not making a law, making law, and not making a law. Are you confused yet?

A joint memorial is, again, a measure that must be adopted by both houses, and is used to make a request of, or a statement to, other legislative bodies of authority. For example, Idaho is currently considering House Joint Memorial 001 (HJM001), the purpose of which is “to affirm the Idaho Legislature’s support for the Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

A proclamation is exactly what it sounds like—an avenue for politicians to ‘proclaim’ something. Most of the time, it’s hard to understand why this is something that should take up any of the time of our legislators. Occasionally, however, the proclamation will have something to do with something you care about, and suddenly you understand.

Montana doesn’t appear to have bothered with any proclamations this session, but Idaho’s Senate has adopted a proclamation to commend Peace Corps volunteers. The Idaho House did the same, and then went further and commended former President Ronald Reagan, commended the town of Lewiston for reaching the ripe old age of 150, and recognized and celebrated the “75th Anniversary of the Sun Valley Resort and Sun Valley inductees Earl Holding and Muffy Davis for this year’s Ski Hall of Fame.”

Oh yeah.

Given all this discussion of how our legislatures do what they do, it’s probably worth mentioning the governor’s role; at least, his (and in Idaho and Montana, they both are ‘his’) role at the end of the process.

The Governor can sign the bill forwarded to him by the legislature, the final step in making it the official law of the land, or he can say no. This is where the veto comes in. And by the way, this is yet another story with a little Latin, as veto means “I forbid.”

In Montana, but not in Idaho, the Governor can amend the bill and send it back to the legislature for another vote.

In both states, the Governor can exercise the line-item veto, striking out specific sections of a bill, or a full veto eliminating the whole thing. The legislature then has the right to override his veto; in Idaho, two-thirds of the legislature must vote to do so. In Montana, the requirement to override a gubenatorial veto requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature.

Of course, the legislature doesn’t just pontificate on issues, pat people on the back and create, amend or delete laws; the other attention-getting part of their job this year has to do with setting budgets.

Unfortunately, the state operates much like any service worker out there who relies on tips to make a living: they have to budget how much money they’re planning to spend without having a clear idea of how much money will actually be available to spend. And they have to do it now, because the agencies they fund are also setting budgets. For most governmental agencies, their fiscal year (the time when their new budget takes effect) begins on July 1.

Budget committees have to do some pretty good guessing on how much money will be coming in; if they guess wrong, then down the road they have to let all those government agencies know they’re not going to get as much money as planned. When this happens, these amounts are generally referred to as holdbacks or clawbacks. 

Both states are required by law to balance their budgets. They can’t simply go into the red if their guesses are wrong.

The Idaho legislature likes to make its money guesses fairly conservatively; this year, their best guess is the state will receive $2.3 billion in funds from sales tax, income tax, fees and the like.

Montana has it a little (or a lot) tougher; by law, they only meet in odd-numbered years, so they must develop budgets for two years running. They are meeting currently to develop a budget not just for July of this year (fiscal year 2012) but for July of rhe following year as well. They have gone into the process projecting that revenues will only cover 90 percent of what the budget currently covers. 

Revenue projections are tricky things and, because they are ‘best guesses,’ are sources of deep controversy when it comes time to set budgets, especially when those numbers are falling. This legislative year provides ample examples of that.

In Montana, the controversy involves about $118 million dollars—the difference between what the governor believes will come in and what the most conservative members of the legislature believe will be the actual revenue.

Idaho’s budget estimates this year have bounced around like a Mexican jumping bean, beginning with the governor’s projection of a $35 million deficit in January and jumping to a $185 million shortfall in early February. The budget committee for the state finally settled on a $92 million shortfall late in February. 


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Landon Otis

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Montana, budget, governor, Idaho, government, legislature, legislators, bill, resolution, concurrent resolution, memorial, proclamation, joint proclamation, legislative process

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