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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Quist Vs. Gianforte, State Budget Woes, Mail Voting

"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.
"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin discuss the Quist and Gianforte nominations, the proposed health and human services cuts, and their impacts, as well as the ongoing controversy over whether counties can use mail-ballots only in the May special election.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I"m joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Rob, Democrats have picked their nominee for the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, our new Interior secretary, but it took them four ballots to do so, and they picked a candidate with no political experience, musician Rob Quist.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, that's exactly right, and it did take several ballots. There were a number of candidates including two pretty top level candidates in Amanda Curtis and Kelly McCarthy, both legislators with a great deal of experience and I think on the things we saw in Helena at the Democratic nominating convention was this debate over whether experience was most important or a kind - of outsider new face, electability considerations were more important and certainly Amanda Curtis has experience running a statewide campaign, also as a lawmaker and in here speech she really emphasized these aspects. Kelly McCarthy did the same, but ultimately it was Quist who won out and I think that might have had more to do with style than with substance. Both he and Curtis are strong progressives. Curtis, of course, has the record to prove that, but based on what Quist has said recently, he appears to be in roughly the same mold. So I think this had a lot more to do with style and considerations of who would be more electable. He's got a whole cowboy thing going. He looks like what people think a Montanan would look like. So he can kind of tap in to some of those populist sentiments around the state.

SM: Was gender a factor?

RS: Well certainly Curtis thought so, and I think a lot of her supporters think that as well, and I think there is some lingering resentment about that. I don't think that that's going to be much of an issue going forward. I don't think this is anything like a kind of Hillary - Bernie divide or what we've seen here in Montana, the Baucus - Schweitzer kind of divide that was long-lasting and did have some harmful effects for the party. I think based on what we saw this weekend that the Democratic Party is going to be unified going in to the special election a lot of that has to do with the way that Donald Trump can focus the attention. I think that'll be plenty enough for Democrats to rally behind Rob Quist.

SM: Quist thinks his lack of political experience is an asset. Here's what he told the Democratic delegates:

"I come here not as a career politician rising through the ranks. Congress is made up of actors and athletes, bankers fireman, teachers and small businessmen, and as a poet/musician I ask you to look outside the bubble of Helena to a man who has represented Montana from behind a different kind of microphone."

SM: Whether a poet/musician, Rob, can be a good Congressman is the question voters will answer.

RS: Right, exactly. I think obviously these outsider candidates do have some appeal and maybe more appeal in a state like Montana. But, what Curtis was getting at at the convention, I think, had to do with a couple things, both concerning experience, both on the campaign trail and as a lawmaker. It's hard to get up to speed on all the issues in a short amount of time. It is hard to put together a statewide campaign in a short amount of time. These are things that Curtis did have background and experience in, and basically it kind of comes down to this debate over whether a kind of "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" mentality in which anyone with a bit of common sense can go back to Washington and be effective in Congress; whether this vision of how our system works is accurate or whether as Curtis and McCarthy and frankly Ed Buttrey on the Republican side were arguing, whether experience really matters. I tend to fall on the side that experience is absolutely critical, especially once you get out of the context of the campaign. I think in the context of a campaign, sometimes the outsider thing works very well, but to be effective back in Washington D.C., that is not something you can just bluff your way though. It takes a long time get up to speed on very complicated issues and to learn the culture of the institution. And if you are coming into that with no experience governing it is tough. Now for Quist in this particular election I'm not sure it's going to be quite as big of a deal as it would otherwise because of course his opponent Greg Gianforte doesn't have any governing experience either.

SM: It didn't take long — I think a matter of a few hours after he was nominated for conservative PAC to air a television ad attacking Rob Quist:

"Rob Quist may be entertaining, but on the issues, he's out of tune with Montana. Quist supports a government healthcare plan even more expensive than Obamacare. More government control. Fewer healthcare choices. Higher taxes and more spending. And with terrorists on the march, Quist supports devastating cuts to America's military budget. Rob Quist, too liberal and out of touch for Montana.

"Congressional Leadership Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising."

SM: And, "too liberal" is the label that Quist is gonna be battling this whole campaign.

RS: For sure. And Republicans do have a lot to work with. Quist has said that he was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter. He talks about his support for Medicare for all, and that's what that ad was getting at. One of the ironies for the healthcare debate is that everyone hates teh idea of "government healthcare" as this ad says or "socialized medicine" as Greg Gianforte has been saying, but everyone loves the idea of Medicare for all which is how Rob Quist talks about his position. Now of course these are different ways of saying the same thing. Medicare is government-run single-payer socialized medicine that's a very popular program. But polling data indicates that it really matters what words you use to describe it. But in any event, one thing that strikes me is that Quist's position on healthcare and some other issues is certainly to the left of what we've seen from Democratic candidates who've been successful prior to this point. And that's not to say at all that these aren't reasonable positions, and even positions that couched in the right way might actually be appealing, but it's not a playbook that has been successful here in Montana for Democrats in the recent past.

SM: Up to now.

RS: Right. You just don't see people like Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Brian Schweitzer; they didn't talk about these issues in the same way that Quist is. Now maybe things have changed, and in fact aspects of what we're seeing at the national level suggest that they may have, but whether that's going to be effective here; I think is an open question. And certainly Quist is a little bit off the usual playbook.

SM: As you mention on the Republican side, Greg Gianforte is the nominee. He was chosen on the first ballot and it wasn't even close, and he keeps mimicking Donald Trump.

"The Republican Party is on the move and we're gonna bring our conservative values to return liberty and freedom back to Montanans and this country and we will make America great again."

SM: Is there any danger, Rob, to Greg Gianforte running on Trump's coattails?

RS: Absolutely, I think there is. I think probably it will work out well for Gianforte. I mean, Trump just won this state by over 20 percentage points, and I think this is a calculation on Gianforte's part that hitching himself to Trump makes a lot of sense. He keeps saying this is going to be a referendum on Trump, etc. So, clearly he's going all in in that direction. The one difficulty here is that if the Trump presidency truly crashes and burns here before the election, that's going to be a big problem. I don't think that's going to happen, but it's certainly more likely here than it has been in previous presidencies. So there's some slight concern, sure.

SM: Back at the legislature, Chuck, the House Appropriations Committee has been hearing pleas all week form education and health advocates and human service advocates not to make deep cuts in their budgets or there will be severe consequences. But those are the areas that cost the state the most and barring new revenue that's where saving would have to come from.

Chuck Johnson: That's right Sally. The Republicans have said they can't make the governor's budget work because they can't assume that his tax increases that are needed to balance the budget and funding switches are going to pass the session. So they cut the budgets and education and public health and human services were the big ones. The committee has put money back in for the Senior and Long-Term Care program; about $23 million in additional federal money that would be matched by about $10.5 million of the state general fund money. Well the state general fund money is coming from guess where: the money the state got back from Medicaid earlier in the session. And Governor Bullock shifted to the Department of Transportation so the highway projects that were put on hold could be then built. You can't spend the same money in two places at the same time, and so I don't know what's gonna happen, but at least temporarily there's more money in that budget, and if it stays there, then they need to find more money to put into the highway program. So, a lot of moving pieces. The director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services Sheila Hogan afterwards told reporters it's like getting a new car, but not getting the keys. They can't drive it without the keys, and they can't spend it without the money, so I don't know what's gonna happen, it'll be an interesting decision they'll be certainly debated heavily on the floor and we're waiting to see what Governor Bullock has to say about it.

SM: Well the testimony at these budget hearings is often personal and wrenching. Here's Travis Hoffman of Missoula who uses a wheelchair:

"Services provided by DPHHS allow me to go to the bathroom take a shower, put my pants on, get in my chair. And because I have those services I can work. I was able to go to school. I am able to have a life. If some of these things go through that be possible for me and thousands of other individuals with disabilities and older adults across Montana."

SM: These are not easy decisions Chuck.

CJ: No, and Travis Hoffman has been over testifying at least a couple of times, and obviously legislators were moved by his testimony. In fact the committee has put back money to help fund these independent living expenses and Rep. Knokey of Bozeman specifically  mentioned Travis Hoffman and another individual whose testimony moved him and others to find some money for this program, so it's kind of an illustration, people always say 'the legislature doesn't listen to real people.' Well they certainly have listened to Travis Hoffman and some of his colleagues.

SM: It's also a reminder that the decisions made in Helena, it's not all numbers. These are decisions that do affect real people in a very real way.

Rob, the flap over whether the special election can be by mail ballot only in counties that choose to do that continues to draw national attention. Republican lawmaker Geraldine Custer, who favors the mail ballot bill, was on the Rachel Maddow show of all places this past week chastising her party's leaders for opposing it.

RS: Yeah, exactly Sally. And especially the party Chair Jeff Essmann who sent out that letter not long ago suggesting that if it's an all mail election that that is going to hurt Republicans and help Democrats, suggesting that they don't want an all mail election, which would presumably drive up turnout and participation. That struck me as just an unforced error. I think it's probably true, but I don't know why you'd put that in writing knowing that it would get out. That said, I'm not quite sure that it's going to be something that's long remembered or is going to change anyone's mind necessarily. But again, it strikes me as something of an unforced error for the Republican Party, and certainly something that the Democrats can point to and will probably be effective in helping them raise money and things like this. It does seem like the legislature is probably moving in a direction of allowing the counties to make that decision to have it be all mail. And if that is what ends up happening, it's likely that most if not all of the counties will opt to do all mail just because it is so much less expensive.

CJ: I'm not sure that's actually going to happen Rob because the bill has not yet even been assigned a hearing date. I think it came to the House the first part of March, and here we are about a week or so later, and still no hearing schedule, and it was sent to House Judiciary, not House State Administration where election bills invariably go, so I think they may be slow rolling this one long enough to make it so it doesn't go anywhere.

SM: And if it does fail it could be that they'll win the battle and lose the war with public opinion. They meaning the Republican leadership. It's not good optics.

"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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