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Cowboy ethics, in difficult times

Recently, I read a book called, “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn From the Code of the West.”

That book, as well as this past week as we debated proposed budget cuts for the current year, made me think of my father and what he’d expect of me in life.

My father was a dairy farmer when I was born. He loved cows, whole milk and butter. He claimed to even love the smell of cow manure. Dad lived by the “cowboy ethics,”even after his farming days were done. One of these recognized principles is, “Do what has to be done.” Another is, “Always finish what you start.” Great advice, but following these principles this week was a real challenge for reasons I’ll explain below.

The Joint Budget Committee, a six-member legislative committee, typically presents to the full Legislature a package of bills to true up the budget that we passed the year before, but had only economic predictions to go by when we adjourned in May.

These bills are called the supplementals, because, in good economic years, there’s often new funding requests submitted for our consideration. This year, though, with less revenue than had been forecasted, we were considering negative supplementals, or in plain English, we had to make more cuts rather than approving new requests.

The Joint Budget Committee is a bipartisan group, but when the governor is from the same party as the legislative majority, the supplemental process is more of a formality than a true debate. The minority party has only two ways to object to the proposals running on greased skids and that’s to vote no or to try to amend the bills.

This week, we were faced with cutting state agency expenses and some of us tried to nudge our fellow members to do what has to be done. That is, we asked them to consider reducing the number of state employees, hopefully through retirements or resignations, by an additional 1.6 percent from the minimal or no reductions proposed in the bills.

We asked this by proposing amendments to the bills. We expressed no malice toward any single agency of state government, but suggested all agencies would reduce personnel by the same small percentage, as implemented by the agency heads. We felt this needed to be done, given the shortfall and the reality of the world outside of state government.

After hours of debate, only one of the amendments passed, the one that cut the Department of Agriculture. Amendments for all of the other departments failed. This wasn’t an accident, but political payback for not going along with the proposed package. At the end of a long day, the only department to take a reduction would be the one most rural legislators feel a particular kinship to, that is, the Department of Agriculture.

At the last minute, the Agriculture committee chairman tried to reverse this result because only the agency under his committee would be reduced. However, when the vote came to reverse that proposed additional cut, those who had supported it not knowing it would be the only accepted, were on the horns of a dilemma.

Do we say nice try, retreat and vote for the reversal of the earlier vote or do we stand on the principle that you do what has to be done? The second ethic, finish what you start, came to mind. My father would expect as much. Most of us stood our ground and voted against the reversal. Regardless, the final vote came out to repeal the earlier action.

The Department of Agriculture won’t have that 1.6 percent additional reduction nor should it be the lone agency asked to do so. Yet, I’m particularly proud of the House members whose livelihoods are in agriculture who stood firm, ready to take the budgetary hits we know are still before us. That’s leadership that my dad, and theirs, would be proud of.