When the Legislature reconvenes March 2 after the halftime break, they will tackle bills that deal with funding, taxation and the budget. Lawmakers’ only constitutional obligation is to pass a balanced budget for the next two years.
The process is long and complicated. It begins in the executive branch when agencies work with the governor’s budget office to develop a proposed two-year budget.
State law spells out deadlines for this procedure in the months leading up to each session, ending with submission of the preliminary spending plan to legislative staff by Nov. 12.
What does the legislative staff do with the budget?
The Legislative Fiscal Division staff conducts an analysis of the budget for the Legislature to convene on the first Monday in January of each odd-numbered year. The analysis, contained in multiple volumes, identifies the major elements of the budget, concerns with proposed spending and revenue projections, and alternatives that legislators may wish to consider.
When the Legislature convenes, portions of the budget, traditionally contained in House Bill 2, are allocated for review by various subcommittees composed of senators and representatives from the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. The majority party in each house has more members on each six-member subcommittee than does the minority party.
There are six subcommittees: Education; General Government; Health and Human Services; Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice; Long-range Planning; and Natural Resources and Transportation. They hold hearings to listen to representatives of each agency explain the details, reasoning and needs behind the various elements of their budget requests and then ask questions to learn more about the proposals.
The subcommittee members eventually decide what level of funding and budget initiatives to approve. The subcommittee process usually lasts throughout the first half of the 90-day session.
When the subcommittees are done, the legislative staff updates the budget to reflect the actions and the chairman of each subcommittee presents their section of the budget to the full Appropriations Committee shortly after the Legislature returns from its mid-session break.
The Appropriations Committee goes through the budget one subcommittee section at a time. Because only some of the committee members served on each subcommittee, all have the opportunity to ask questions about what the subcommittees did and why.
They also have a chance to ask budget questions of department officials. The committee has the ability to make changes in the budget before sending the bill to the full House of Representatives. The legislative staff updates its analysis of the budget before it reaches the House.
The same procedure used in the Appropriations Committee is used in full House. The budget is presented a section at a time, questions are asked and House members can propose changes. The House must complete its work on the budget and send it to the Senate by March 25.
In the Senate
The process is similar to that in the House. The budget goes to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee for review and possible changes. Then the full Senate gets the opportunity to review and make changes in the spending plan.
The Senate must finish its work and send the budget bill back to the House by April 9.
House members then have to decide whether to approve the changes made by the Senate. Historically, the House always rejects the changes, a move that requires the budget be sent to a joint conference committee made up of an equal number of the senators and representatives. This committee must resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget.
The conference committee is usually composed of six members, three from each house. Once again, the majority party in each house (Republicans in this session) has more members on the conference committee than does the minority.
The members must decide which Senate changes will remain. This is usually done during the final three weeks of the session. Although the committee’s meetings are public, much of the negotiation goes on behind closed doors in informal discussions among House and Senate leaders. Sometimes the governor’s office may be consulted to ensure that the final adjustments will produce a budget acceptable to the governor.
After the joint conference committee finishes its work, the budget changes made by the committee go back to the House and the Senate for final approval. If the two chambers agree on the budget, it goes to the governor for signature. If the committee work is rejected by either or both houses, the committee must resume efforts to find agreement.
When the Legislature takes final action on the budget, the bill goes to the governor for a decision. He has several choices: He can sign it into law, allow it to become law without his signature, veto it or return it with suggested changes.
If the governor vetoes the budget, and if the Legislature is still in session, legislators vote on whether to uphold the veto. Two-thirds or more of each house (67 representatives and 34 senators) are required to overturn a veto.
If the Legislature has adjourned, members are polled by the secretary of state. If the veto is upheld, the Legislature must resume work on the budget by continuing the regular session or convening in special session, with the goal of developing a spending plan acceptable to the governor or enough legislators to overturn another veto.
If the governor suggests changes in the budget bill, the Legislature must vote on whether to accept the changes, but a simple majority of each chamber is all that’s needed.
If there’s an impasse, the two branches of government eventually must agree on a new budget before the start of the new fiscal year — July 1 — or state government will not have authority to spend money.
WHAT ABOUT TRANSPARENCY?
Q: How much of the budget work is done in public?
A: While the hearings and votes are public, much of the decision-making is done behind the scenes by the majority party, sometimes in consultations with members of the minority party. Trade-offs and deals are sometimes struck among lawmakers. The final votes come after decisions already have been made in private, are carefully orchestrated and seldom involve any public debate or discussions.
Bob Anez is the communications director for the Montana Department of Corrections and a former longtime Capitol reporter for the Helena bureau of the Associated Press. He compiled this information for a Department of Corrections newsletter published Feb. 14.