Democrats Hope To Shrink GOP Majorities In Montana Legislature
From the seat of his combine in the Helena Valley, Republican Senate candidate Joe Dooling talked about why he decided to run for the Legislature.
“I’m just wondering where all the grownups are,” he said.
The 2013 legislative session was marked by a split between conservatives and moderates in the Republican majority, at least one day of banging on tables and more than 70 vetoes from Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Dooling said he was frustrated by all of it.
Even so, political scientists Jeffrey Greene, of the University of Montana, and Craig Wilson, of Montana State University – Billings, are predicting a more productive session when lawmakers gather in Helena this winter.
Both expect Republicans to maintain control in the state Senate and House of Representatives, but said gains by Democrats and a waning influence of tea party conservatives could lead to more compromise.
“The tea party may have reached its zenith,” Wilson said.
Redrawing the boundaries
Dooling’s race in East Helena reflects one reason for the Democrats’ guarded optimism: newly redrawn districts, the products of a statewide redistricting plan adopted last year.
Typically a Republican area, the district’s new boundaries include more of urban Helena where Democrats run stronger.
Dooling’s opponent is former Rep. Jill Cohenour, a chemist who spent four terms in the House ending in 2009. She’s banking on experience, and said she would focus on expanding Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health care for the needy, aged, blind and disabled.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government offered Montana hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the expansion’s costs for the next few years. But Republicans controlling the 2013 Legislature rejected the idea, saying it would only add to federal deficit and commit Montana to exorbitant future costs. Montana is one of 19 states that rejected the federal money.
Cohenour said the expansion should have passed in 2013. “Those are our very own tax dollars that should have been coming back to our state,” she said.
Dooling said he wants a Montana-made solution to high health-care costs, something like a voucher-type program for low-income families.
Issues in oil country
Expanding Medicaid is an issue in many legislative battles this election, including an eastern Montana Senate district where Democrat Rep. Bill McChesney and incumbent Republican Sen. Frederick “Eric” Moore are facing off. Both consider themselves to be moderates within their parties.
McChesney said he faces an uphill battle but hopes his support for natural resource development and private property rights will help.
Moore said he and McChesney tend to agree on issues like the need for additional money to maintain roads and other infrastructure that have been hammered by the Bakken oil boom.
Both were disappointed last session when Gov. Bullock vetoed legislation that would have sent eastern Montana $35 million to deal with such impacts.
They differ, however, on whether Montana should have joined the 26 states that accepted federal money to expand Medicaid. McChesney supports expanding the program to cover more Montanans; Moore does not.
The two also disagree on another question that’s getting attention in legislative races statewide: Should Montana offer parents of K-12 students options such as charter schools and tax credits for private schools? Moore favors great choices for parents; McChesney fears that would shortchange public schools.
Redistricting has dramatically changed the boundaries in Senate District 14, where veteran Sen. Greg Jergeson, a Democrat, is seeking election. His new district still includes his home city of Havre, but it now includes a huge territory to the west and south where Republicans have done well in the past.
A retired farmer, Jergeson has served 22 years in the Senate and eight years on the state’s Public Service Commission. He faces two-term Republican Rep. Kristin Hansen, a Havre attorney who made headlines in 2011 by trying to prohibit cities from passing ordinances to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
One area where the two differ is over support for public schools.
Jergeson said better funding for public schools is his priority. He opposes experimental charter schools and tax credits for private education, saying such ideas would siphon money away from public schools.
Hansen said she too wants strong public schools but private education and home schooling should be encouraged too. Montana’s public schools “will be made better when parents have options to consider for the children’s best interests,” she writes on her website.
Other issues on northern voters’ minds include deteriorating sewers, water systems and other public facilities, Jergeson said. “Population loss puts pressures on the tax base able to support the infrastructure,” he said.
Eastern Montana is getting attention, but isn’t the only place that needs help, he said.
Finding middle ground
Candidates statewide expect the next Legislature to battle over Medicaid and school funding and infrastructure, but other issues are getting attention too.
Sen. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican, and Rep. Robyn Driscoll, a Billings Democrat, both said Montana lawmakers need to reach an agreement with The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes over water use on and off the reservation.
“I think there’s general recognition from all these groups that there needs to be some kind of compact,” he said.
Jones and Helena’s Cohenour both predicted that Gov. Bullock’s recent proposal to fund greater access to preschool programs would get serious consideration too.
Passing such legislation will depend on whether enough Democrats and Republicans can compromise, said UM’s professor Jeffrey Greene. “They’re going to have to have more moderates to push those through,” he said.
Democrats’ hopes for gains lies in picking up a few urban Senate seats, said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte. A tie in the Senate would be a victory. Because the governor is a Democrat, a tie would allow his party to run that chamber.
But the odds are long. For that to happen, Democrats must win all seats they held last session and pick up four more, Sesso said. Much depends on voter turnout.
“If we get to the 60 or 70 percentile of turnout, we have a great chance,” Sesso said.
The last time that happened in a midterm election was in 2006.
--By MADELYN BECK and MICHAEL WRIGHT
UM School of Journalism