By Hob Bryan
Former speakers Buddie Newman and Walter Sillers must be laughing out loud at a rules change proposed passed by the Legislature. It was billed as an attempt to control spending, but it will have practically no effect on spending. Instead, it will make certain that a few select legislators make all the decisions about spending, with little input from rank and file members.
Republicans have a majority in both houses. It’s impossible to pass anything without Republican votes. This proposal shows that the House leadership doesn’t trust the Republican members.
Appropriations bills are, of course, referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which is controlled by the speaker. When those bills are passed out of committee and presented to the full house, individual members could freely offer amendments. This was our only opportunity to influence the process.
Later, after all the appropriations bills are considered by both chambers, they wind up in conference committees, composed of members appointed by the speaker and the lieutenant governor. That’s where final decisions about the budget are made and, needless to say, those conference committees are tightly controlled. They frequently increase the level of spending, and they could still do so under this rule.
Democrats in the Senate have been in the minority, but we previously had been successful in offering amendments on the Senate floor to reduce cuts to education, because some Republicans voted with us.
The bills we amended went to conference committees at the end of the session, but with an important difference: The conferees knew the Senate wanted to reduce the cuts to education. To some extent, the appropriations chairs felt pressure because of these votes. To some extent, they felt deferring to the will of the membership was proper.
This rules change is aimed directly at those floor amendments. A rule requiring that an attempt to help education also make a cut elsewhere makes it impossible to ever get a direct vote on reducing cuts to education.
But – and this is important – under this rule the Legislature could spend any amount of money, so long as the decision was made by the speaker and his cronies. The rule doesn’t apply to the appropriations committees, nor to conference committees. It only affects floor amendments.
The level of spending approved by the appropriations committees is often lower than the final result, and spending is increased by the conference committees. This rule would still let them take care of their pet projects, but the entire membership, which might want to help education instead, would never get the chance to express its views.
Finally – and this is also important – no matter how much money the Legislature appropriates, we can’t spend money we don’t have. Our statutes require that appropriations be cut if there’s not enough money, and this has happened several times in recent years.
All of us are grown ups. We know money is tight, and we know we have to have a balanced budget. We know the final decisions about the budget will be made by a handful of conferees.
But we also know that the ability to vote against unnecessary cuts to education on the floor has been effective over the past several years. The new rule takes it away from us. It would undo the rules reforms of 1987. Speaker Sillers and Speaker Newman would be proud.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, represents the 7th District and has served in the Senate for 28 years.