To the uninitiated, this final day of the session may look like one long cocktail party, with knots of people conversing quietly here and there, as both the House and Senate take lengthy recesses. But those clusters of conversation are actually conference committees, working to resolve differences over the contents of bills.
I sat down with the man who knows the most about conference committees – John Alario. Having served as Speaker twice and Senate President twice, he says there is a strategy to picking the three conferees from each chamber.
“The Senate has a different set of rules than the House,” he explains. “In the House it’ss automatically the chairman of the committee; the author of the bill or the one who handles the bill on the floor; and then the Speaker has an appointment.
“I try to follow the same concept when I make a decision. I try to put the chairman of the committee that heard the bill, because he’ll have knowledge of what the testimony was; the author of the bill or who is handling it for a House member. And then I’ll look at whatever the issue is – who that third person might be. If it’s a particular issue I think a legislator has some expertise in that can help us, then I’ll try to put someone with knowledge on those conference committees.”
While the budget bill, HB 1, is always the most disputed, this session the chasm between House and Senate seems almost unbridgeable. While Alario was speaking generally, you could tell the budget dispute looms large in his mind.
“If there’s some bill that we think is not in the best interest of the state, then certainly, I would try to assign people to it that either get a compromise worked out that would be something we could live with – or just simply kill it.”
I asked if he had ever chosen conferees with the intention of killing a bill.
“I may have, through the years – that’s part of the strategy,” he said, grinning. “Politics always comes into play. That’s the game we’re in, so it’s always a consideration. It always depends on the issue.”
The House is insisting on not spending all the predicted revenue in this next budget, while the Senate wants to protect more critical services and spend what is available. We’ll know this evening at 6 p.m. whether Alario’s experience and strategy is enough to overcome the House philosophy of “more cuts, less spending” – and whether the conflict will necessitate an immediate special session.