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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bullock Resists Spending Cuts; Republicans Try To Out-Trump The Competition

'Campaign Beat' is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program.

Gov. Bullock resists pressure to cut spending because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Republican candidates sound familiar themes in their new campaign ads. Montana has a higher number of women running for office this year. And why some Democrats are thinking about voting for a Republican in the primary.

Listen now on Campaign Beat, with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

[The following is an automated transcript which may contain errors.]

Sally Mauk: Holly, some state Republican leaders believe Gov. Steve Bullock should take some steps now to cut spending in order to prepare for what will surely be a huge hit to the state budget in the next fiscal year because of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the governor says the state is doing okay for now and cuts would be premature.

Holly Michels: Yeah, Sally. We're seeing this increasing tension with Republicans in the state legislature and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over what we should be doing with the state budget right now. We started this fiscal year, which ends in June with about three Daines $60 million in the bank. And we've transferred some money into this budget stabilization reserve fund that we also have that sits at about $170 million. Now, the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund is new from the 2017 legislative session and then Bullock, through his time in office, has insisted on keeping somewhere around $300 million in an obligated general fund balance to deal with emergencies to help cash flow the state. Those sorts of things. And he's arguing now that that money puts Montana in a much better position where we don't need to be looking at making cuts. Right now, though, we are going to see a pretty steep decline in revenues into the next fiscal year and then the next budget, the next governor and legislature will be crafting.

Mauk: Bullock is basically arguing, Holly, that it's unwise to try to predict the future.

"The notion that then what we should do is cuts based on what might happen six months from now or a year from now, I think it's probably misplaced for a number of reasons."

Mauk: But Holly, as you pointed out, others are arguing that it's a given state revenues are going to take a huge hit.

Michels: Yeah, it's it's a little bit too early to tell in some ways. Earlier this year, when the pandemic started, Montana pushed back its income tax filing to July. So we don't have a lot of real time data that these projections are going off of. But we are seeing some pretty significant declines. There's a Moody's analytic projection out there that the legislative fiscal division's using that shows about a $400 million hit to state revenues. Bullock's office is predicting a little bit rosier picture. They're thinking we might still have $113 million in the bank at the end of the next fiscal year in 2021. But the way Montanans budgets are crafted, the budget that we're in now ends at that fiscal year. The next legislature will come in, in 2021 and have to make some of these really hard cuts. So if some people are saying this might be Republicans way to shift some of that responsibility onto Bullock now in his term, he will be leaving office at the January 2021 and this will be mostly dealt with with the next legislature and governor.

Mauk: Rob, the governor, besides, governing is, of course, also running to be a U.S. senator. And it would not help his campaign to make some painful budget cuts and possibly lay off state workers right now.

Rob Saldin: That's right, Sally. And I mean, I think you can look at this as kind of a one off thing that has to be dealt with. The other way to look at it, though, is to just look at this is a familiar dance in which everyone knows their role. And the basic pattern here when talking about the budget is pretty well established and we see it playing out here again. I mean, basically, we've seen for the time that bollix been governors that the Democrats have a more rosy assessment of the budget than do Republicans in the legislature. And those assessments happily dovetail perfectly with each side's preexisting views. Bullock and the Dems tend to be more predisposed to see government as a positive force for helping people.

But Bullock, you know, is also, as Holly discussed, kind of in a way outflanked Republicans to an extent in terms of being kind of playing the role of responsible adult in the room, because he can point to that rainy day fund that he pushed for and that we're now probably fortunate to have. So all that is to say, I mean, I think the current budget discussion here is as much an extension of this old basic dynamic that's been at work now for a number of years. But that said, Sally, I mean, it's totally true. I mean, you've got this Senate race as a backdrop. You know, we talked about some of the polling that's come out showing that at the least very competitive, if not an edge to Bullock, whether or not those polls are fully accurate or not.

We don't know. But the very least, it looks like it's going to be close, and Bullock up to this point, like a lot of governors across the country, has really benefited from the prominent role that he's played in responding to the virus. But there could be a tough and potentially more controversial decisions to come, and this is certainly one of them. So, I mean, obviously, just from the politics of the campaign, he's not very eager to be facing decisions about making cuts that would be in many cases painful and in many cases hit some of the people whose votes he'll be counting on in November.

Mauk: Holly In the state attorney general's race, Republican Austin Knudsen has a new ad out that emphasizes that elusive quality known as grit.

"There's grit. Then there's Montana Grit. Austin Knudsen, character: forged working the family, farm and ranch, courage: to protect our families, resolve: to get the job done. Austin Knudsen, the only prosecutor for attorney general. Endorsed by Greg Gianforte because Austin has President Trump's back. Fights against sanctuary cities and protects our Second Amendment rights. Austin Knudsen the Montana grit to put Montana first."

Mauk: Montana grit almost sounds like a new cereal. This ad, Holly, hits the themes we're seeing in almost every Republican ad, no matter what the office: immigration, gun rights and Trump.

Michels: Yeah, I think we're seeing Republican candidates in this happens in the primary really trying to appeal to this primary voters who show that they're the most conservative in their primary races and class week. We were talking about Jon Bennion, the deputy attorney general right now and Knudsen's opponent in the Republican A.G. primary, trying to say he's the only pro-life candidate in that race, though I think there's no question that both are deeply conservative on that specific issue. This Knudsen ad is lots of eastern Montana imagery, there's cows, there's a tractor. I think there's a branding in it. And I think he's trying to contrast himself to Bennion there, who's been in the attorney general's office here in Helena since 2013. That's another common attack we hear Republicans make against primary challengers who are in Helena, maybe part of an administration already, that they view may become liberal, have spent too much time in Helena. And I think the reference to the endorsement by Greg Gianforte. One thing that stands out to me is any conversation I'm having with Republican candidates right now at any level; it always ends up being about the governor's race and who they're endorsing and who they're supporting. And I think that just shows how much this race, too, is tied to that governor's race. Bennion is the number two for a Republican attorney general, Tim Fox, who's running against Greg Gianforte in that Republican primary. So I think, you know, this A.G race is becoming a lot more heated and getting a lot more attention as ballots are going out. And probably one of the more hard-fought on the tier-B primary races we're seeing this cycle.

Mauk: Rob, in the U.S. House race, Republican Corey Stapleton also has a new ad. Let's listen to that.

"Maryland Matt Rosendale supports amnesty for illegal immigrants and is backed by the same swamp creatures that spent millions attacking President Trump."

"Hi, I'm Corey Stapleton. I'm a fourth generation Montanans. I've been tested driving aircraft carriers in the Navy and fighting liberals in Helena. Now I'm ready to help President Trump turn this ship around, build the wall, pass term limits, defeat socialism and restart the economy. I'm Corey Stapleton and I approve this message."

Mauk: And this ad starts out, Rob, with an ominous tone criticizing the leading Republican contender, Matt Rosendale. And then it gets all cheery when Stapleton appears. And again, it hits immigration and Trump and socialism.

Saldin: Yeah, Sally. There's a lot packed into this one, including that abrupt and jarring switch in tone. You know, the carpetbagger thing stood out to me. You know, this is one of those things that's become so common in recent years. Greg Gianforte and Matt Rosendale both have been dogged by this. And we see Tim Fox currently hitting Gianforte on this in that governor's primary. But this ad from Stapleton, I mean, this is definitely one of the less subtle versions of this attack. The visual on that part of the ad is of Baltimore, the harbor there.

The other thing I got a kick out of in this ad was that it suggests, again, just in the visual that Matt Rosendale is a never trumper. That's definitely the first time I've heard that charge leveled at Rosendale ...

Mauk: Who Trump has endorsed ...

Saldin: Well, right! Of course Donald Trump has endorsed Matt Rosendale. So I doubt that that attack is going to stick. But it's all indicative, I guess, of just the key dynamic at work in the Republican Party right now, and that is that the president is the uncontested leader of the party. No one dares to criticize him and many will go to great lengths to associate themselves with him. Even if he's endorsed their opponent, as is the case here.

Mauk: Holly, the Associated Press did a story this week about the high number of women running for statewide office in Montana this year. And not just for the legislature, but also for governor and for Congress. And that's from both major parties. Montana does better than most states that electing women to the legislature. But we've only had one female governor, Republican Judy Martz, and only one female member of Congress Jeannette Rankin.

Michels: Yeah, there's definitely some ground for women candidates to make up there. We've got 11 women candidates running for statewide offices this year. That story points out Kathleen Williams in the U.S. House primary is probably pretty likely to emerge from that primary to the general election. The rest we'll wait and see what election night says.

But there have been challenges. Like you said, Montana's only had one female governor sent one woman to Congress. I talked to Carol's List, which works to get progressive women candidates elected in Montana. And they've talked about some of the challenges that women face in running for office. You know, women generally need to be asked, and often several times, to run for office, while men are more likely to think and assume they're qualified and run without you needing to be prompted over and over.

There's also challenges women face, especially at the state legislature level, looking at, you know, unequal division of work at home. That leaves you with less time to do things like run a campaign or even the logistics of serving in the legislature and Helena needing to move here for four months out of the year. You see why it's hard for women to run, but I think you will see how this goes. That is a record high. And I think the primary might filter some of those out and we'll see a different picture in the general. But a good chance maybe at the House race at least, that they'll be a woman in that general election.

Mauk: Rob, Montanans have received three ballots in mail, one each for the Democrat Republican Green Party. And we have an open primary so you can choose which ballot you're going to fill out. Lately, I've heard from some diehard Democrats that in the primary they're going to vote the Republican ballot because they want to vote for Tim Fox. And their reasoning is that they don't want Greg Gianforte to be the Republican nominee, much less governor. Have you been hearing similar rumblings from some Democrats?

Saldin: Yeah, I sure have. Sally. In fact, I've been hearing them for months and months, dating back to when it became clear that Gianforte was going to run for governor, too. You're right. I think this is a dynamic that we see here in Montana because it's an open primary. Everyone gets all the ballots and you pick which one you want to fill out. That's not the way it works in a number of other states where you have to be a registered party member. I'm not hearing of any kind of organized, orchestrated effort like we've sometimes seen in the past. But yeah, it's it it just is all about that, you know, Fox maybe not as good as a Democrat, but definitely way better than Gianforte, who a lot of Democrats just think would be truly a disaster. Fox, on the other hand, is somebody who you can work with and trust even if he's not necessarily your total top choice. I also, though am getting some sense that some Democrats out there, certainly the leaders of the party, are concerned about this dynamic. They worry about how that would impact their own primary. And then there's also this concern that if Fox actually did win, that that could make it more difficult for Democrats in the fall.

Mauk Rob and Holly, thank you. And we'll talk to you again next week.

Campaign Beat is a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio. Campaign Beat features University of Montana political science professor and Mansfield Center fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk.

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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