CHEYENNE — The Legislature has been periodically tweaking the rules of the budget session in an effort to make it run better without trampling the rights of individual legislators.
The tinkering began before the first budget session in 1974.
First, a little history:
The constitutional amendment that authorized the budget session used permissive language, saying the state “may have a budget session” that will meet the second Tuesday of January in even-numbered years.
It should be pointed out that the amendment did not specify that only the budget and emergency bills could be introduced in the budget session.
The fiddling began with the starting date. Although the first budget session convened on the second Tuesday in January 1974 as the constitution suggested but did not mandate, it quickly adjourned because —by pre-arrangement — only a handful of legislators showed up, not enough to make a quorum.
So the leaders adjourned the session until the fourth Tuesday of January.
They reasoned that the new schedule would save taxpayer money and give the Joint Appropriations Committee time to do its budget review ahead of the session when all the legislators would come back the second Monday of February.
Later that February it was cemented into state law.
This current session and large crop of non-essential bills is an example of how the intended purpose of the budget session may have been distorted.
The strange mix, including a pornography resolution, could be lumped in with proposals that the late former Gov. Ed Herschler —a former legislator who was not a fan of the budget session— always said could “wait a hundred years.”
He called them “dogs,” a category that included all resolutions.
In the first budget session in 1974, there were no “dogs” that I could identify. The relatively few proposals offered were pretty serious stuff.
Compared to the hundreds of bills that go into the hopper today in the short session, only 47 were filed in the House; of those, 16 passed. The Senate let in 23 and passed 10.
The session produced two constitutional amendments — one to set up a permanent mineral trust fund, financed by a 1.5 percent tax on coal, petroleum, gas and oil shale.
The second substituted a $12 million state property tax levy for the local $6 million property tax levy for schools.
This was the first move to transfer support of schools from the local to the state level to equalize dollars between districts.
The legislators also passed a controversial bill to allow use of deep underground water for a coal slurry pipeline from Niobrara County to the south, a project that would produce passionate protests and lawsuits before it died.
At the time, the state was on the cusp of a big boom from coal production in the Powder River Basin.
The budget was barely mentioned.
Over the years as the number of bills for introduction in the budget session kept climbing, the leaders tried to find ways to stem the flood.
The leaders were loath in particular to limit the number of bills members could file in the House on grounds that it was the legislative branch closest to the public, given that representatives serve only two year terms.
The latest joint legislative rules for the budget sessions limit each individual Senate member to 3 bills and each representative to five.
Exempt from the limit are the joint interim committees and the management and audit committees.
An attempt this session by Rep. Nathan Winter of Thermopolis to limit the number in the House to three each, failed by a 33-27 vote, according to a report from Doug Randall of Cheyenne radio station KGAB.
So we’re back to the flood of bills.
Yet the constitutional amendment which voters approved in the 1970s left the door open to anything and everything, even the “dogs,” if they can pass the two-thirds majority vote for introduction.
It is the democratic process at work, like it or not.