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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

2019 Montana Legislature Wrap-Up

Montana Capitol building.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol building.

The Montana Legislature passed 375 bills before it adjourned late last week. Gov. Steve Bullock must now decide which of them he will sign or veto.

At an end of session press conference Bullock sounded pleased.

“Dang near every proposal that I asked this legislative body to seriously consider will be making its way to my desk." he said.

That includes the reauthorization of Medicaid expansion which provides health coverage for 96,000 people in the state, an $80 million infrastructure bonding package, and a $10 billion state budget.

However, the Republican controlled Legislature did not pass Bullock’s requests in the form he originally asked for them.

The state budget is slightly smaller than what Bullock wanted and Republicans rejected the governor's package to borrow money for public works projects and made their own.

A Republican also carried the bill to continue Medicaid expansion. Democratic lawmakers didn’t like new work and public service requirements in the bill for certain enrollees, but negotiated to make them less strict and unanimously voted with Republicans to pass it.

Bullock and lawmakers failed to reach a deal to create a state preschool program, which has been a major goal of his administration.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls, says Democrats are always having to compromise.

"Being in the minority means every bill we pass is a bipartisan bill. And I think the fact that we’re able to get that done in a bipartisan way means our compromises and our solutions make sense. And they make sense for the the people of Montana. And they make sense no matter what your political party is. And we’re gonna continue to bring those no matter who has the second floor."

Democratic control over the governor’s office in recent years has been a backstop preventing conservative Republicans from getting some of their priority bills signed into law.

Bullock has already vetoed several of this session’s Republican bills, including one championed by Senate leadership that would have eliminated state income tax on social security income. The governor has declined to say whether he will veto other key legislation for Republicans involving other tax breaks, including one for businesses that hire new employees.

Republicans have also passed several anti-abortion bills,which in past sessions Bullock has vetoed.

Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, says conservatives have already picked up some wins. He says they were able to reject most of Gov. Bullock’s tax increase requests. Hertz says another accomplishment was cutting nearly 200 vacant jobs in state government. That essentially cuts funding to state departments, because agencies receive partial funding for positions that are left open.

"We met that goal. We eliminated a number of full-time-equivalent jobs that were basically empty, and kind of a slush fund for the executive branch.”

But not all Republicans are satisfied with how the session turned out.

Majority Leader Brad Tschida, a Republican from Missoula, said during a farewell speech on the House floor late last week that he believed the GOP was divided, split into factions of conservatives and moderates. He said it weakened the party’s political power during the session.

"Republicans, we should have stood up and upheld our pledge to Montanans to reject any measures raising taxes, which is our primary platform duty," Tschida said.

Tschida, Hertz and other Republican leaders opposed new taxes on aviation fuel, hotel rooms, and new fees for investment professionals, like brokers. They also voted against a bonding infrastructure bill that moves forward the renovation of Romney Hall at Montana State University along with other projects.

All of those measures passed, and the new revenue is earmarked to fund rural airport projects, a new state history museum, and protections against aquatic invasive species. Some of the money will also go into the state’s general fund.

One of the most high-profile bills impacting state spending also failed to win support from leading Republicans — Medicaid expansion.

The portrait of the Republican party exiting the 2019 legislative session is different depending on who you ask.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas from Stevensville — unlike his counterpart in the House — says the GOP is banding together.

"I think we will leave here very united. And everybody sees that we could really move this state forward in so many ways, in the economics and job arena, higher paying jobs, if we have that Republican governor on the second floor after the next election."

Winning the governor’s seat was a goal some Republicans had coming into the session.

Before work began, the new leadership of the Republican caucus made a plea for unity within the party, attempting to cement their majority power during this session and to build a path to take the governor’s seat in the next election for the first time in over a decade.

Three Republicans with name recognition have already announced bids to run for governor. No Democrats have yet jumped into the race.

With Gov. Bullock terming-out of office, Republicans have a chance to hold both the legislative and executive branch for the first time since 2004, potentially allowing long pent up conservative policy goals to become law.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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