Today is March 16th. It also marks the 55th day of the 2017 Legislative Session. So we’re well over half-way to the finish line.
As is always the case, the heaviest bills come toward the end of the session, and the heaviest of them all is House Bill 2, better known as our State budget. Since the start of the session, the House Appropriations Committee has been meeting daily, crafting a balanced budget that they believe is workable, given the tight revenue side of the equation. Today is the Great Unveiling. The House of Representatives will meet, as they do every two years, in a marathon session that will begin at 8:00 a.m. and could go well into the night. If they don’t finish today, they will continue tomorrow.
In addition to being physically taxing, the debate on the budget is also mentally taxing. Republicans and Democrats will both meet in caucus to get their marching orders from their leadership. For the Republicans, their orders go something like this: We’re in the majority, we’ll responsible for actually passing the budget, and we’re spending what we can afford. Please vote “no” on any amendment that adds money to the budget. For the Democrats, it’s a little different. They’re in the minority, so the budget as currently drafted, doesn’t contain very many of their spending priorities. Their side will introduce amendment after amendment, and their leadership will ask them to vote “yes” on as much of it as they can.
When they walk into the chamber this morning, the first thing the freshmen will notice is that it’s undergone a transformation. Long tables will be placed below the rostrum and along the east wall, and these tables will be filled with legislative accounting staff and banks of computers. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., the games being. They start work with Section A, “General Government,” and proceed section by section until every section of the bill has been opened, debated and closed. After Section A comes Section B, “Health and Human Services,” then Section C, “Natural Resources,” and so on.
Historically, the largest segment of the budget is education at roughly 50%, followed by Health and Human Services at roughly 20%, and Corrections or Prisons at roughly 7 to 10%. The hardest part of the debate, for me, was always the theatrics. This is the last chance for House Democrats to make a statement on the budget, so they will propose amendment after amendment after amendment, every amendment accompanied by several speeches about how the public will be harmed if spending is not increased.
In the past, different constituencies, such as teachers or people with disabilities have been herded into the House gallery to view the debate and apply extra pressure just before the vote. As I said, there’s lots of theatrics. The Democrats will vote “yes” for everything because there’s no pressure. It’s the Republicans’ job to pass a balanced budget, so they have to sit in their seats, endure the wailing and gnashing of teeth, and just keep voting “no.”
Finally, either late tonight or sometime tomorrow, they’ll take the final vote, then send the bill to the Senate where the process begins all over again. Today would be a good day to send your Representative a note of encouragement. They’re making some hard decisions, and they’re doing it on your behalf.