Do Agendas Have Agendas?

Article excerpt

By April many state legislatures have either entered or are nearing that hectic period when individual and party agendas make sudden turns. Hidden agendas surface in the form of tacked-on amendments, competing agendas meet head on, and compromise deals are cut in order to build political capital. Counting votes, understanding how appropriations committees will react, and gauging the power of caucus leadership all come into play. And, of course, governors' veto or signing pens stand ready to put the final spin on agendas. What happens is often predictable, but surprises and mistakes sometimes occur. Some of these experiences can be instructive.

The New Mexico legislature passed a 14-page bill to help a Roswell bus manufacturer get a contract to build New York City buses. In it, the word now should have been not - an error that wasn't discovered until the governor had signed the bill. Both houses jumped in to fix the error, and the governor signed both bills. By rule, the last one signed became law.

Colorado's H.B. 1219, sponsored by Rep. Doug Dean, a Republican from Colorado Springs, was supposed to consolidate all statutes dealing with educational accountability into one section of state law. But a floor amendment by majority leader Norma Anderson of Lakewood, also a Republican, was designed to revoke a part of one article of the bill. The message was poorly communicated, however, and the staff deleted the entire article, knocking out the basic literacy act, professional competency standards for teachers, and Gov. Roy Romer's statewide standards and assessment program. This glitch-beset bill passed the house first by voice vote and then by a roll call vote the next day and was on its way to the Senate before the error was noticed. The Denver Post pointed out that 14 attorneys sit in the 65-member house - and the error got past all of them. Rep. Anderson said that she would work with the Senate education committee to fix the mistake, but her original motion, which was to be directed at funding for the assessment program, touches an issue that is likely to surface in the budget process later in the session.

In New York the high drama of the early part of the session centered on the "lulu" crisis. In New York a "lulu" is supposed to mean "payment in lieu of expenses," but over the years the term has taken on the meaning of "payment for leadership duties." The Republican-controlled Senate has given some kind of leadership stipend to every one of its members, and, when Republican Gov. George Pataki refused to reauthorize seven leadership stipends in the Democrat-controlled house (six of the stipends were to go to Democrats), the legislature got off to a rocky start. The pot simmered for several weeks before the governor relented. When the heat was turned down on this agenda item, the tally showed that 52 of the 54 Republicans in the house got leadership stipends. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, however, had only 62 "lulus" to hand out to 96 of his followers. The moral of this tale must be: what you get depends on whether you're riding a donkey or an elephant. The New York Times described the scene by saying, "The monthly payroll [of the legislature] boasts more leaders than the Continental Congress."

Hidden and Not-So-Hidden Agendas

Being out in the open about one's agenda while at the same time setting up an adversary in a no-win situation is common practice. Seeing the strategy in operation, however, can be difficult, because with an openly stated agenda the originator can deny any such political aims. An instructive example occurred in a midwestern state where a house concurrent resolution was introduced, calling on the state board of education to define a "basic" education program so that the legislature could focus state funding on these items only and allow local district patrons to decide whether they wanted to fund nonbasic items. On the surface the resolution was straightforward and simple, except for the fact that it listed certain extracurricular items (the arts, music, etc. …