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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'The Session' Preview: 'Everybody smile, we’re running the place' 

With the 2022 election over, Republicans hold power not seen in the state Capitol in nearly a century. The governor has released his budget. Lawmakers have elected leadership and will arrive in Helena on Jan. 2 to begin their work.

Host Corin Cates-Carney and reporters Shaylee Ragar, Eric Dietrich, Ellis Juhlin, and Arren Kimbel-Sannit discuss last week’s legislative caucuses, how the governor hopes for the state to spend its money, and what to expect in the upcoming legislative session.

Corin Cates-Carney With the 2022 election over, Republicans hold power not seen in the state capitol in nearly a century. The governor has released his budget. Lawmakers have elected leadership and will arrive in Helena on January 2nd to begin their work. This is The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. I'm Corin Cates-Carney, news director at Montana Public Radio.

Ellis Juhlin I'm Ellis Juhlin with Yellowstone Public Radio.

Shaylee Ragar I'm Shaylee Ragar with Montana Public Radio.

Eric Dietrich I'm Eric Dietrich with the Montana Free Press.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit And I'm Arren Kimbel-Sannit with the Montana Free Press.

Corin Cates-Carney This is our kickoff episode ahead of the 68th meeting of the Montana legislature. Once the session begins in early January, we'll bring you new episodes every Monday. Today, we're going to set the stage. Who holds political power and what do they want to do with it? And how the governor wants to spend your tax dollars. We're going to start with the newly elected leaders of the legislature. Last week was party caucuses. It's the first time newly elected lawmakers have met since the midterm election. Shaylee, what was the mood like?

Shaylee Ragar Republicans are in high spirits, Corin, after winning supermajorities in both chambers of the state house.

Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork Smile, everybody. We're running the place.

Shaylee Ragar That's Representative elect Bob Keenan. He's a Republican from Bigfork, and I think he sums it up pretty well. But even with supermajorities to celebrate, there was some tension among Republicans in the House of Representatives when they elected new party leaders specifically for the election of Speaker of the House.

Corin Cates-Carney What was driving that tension?

Shaylee Ragar Two representatives were nominated for Speaker of the House. One from the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. And one who's further to the right. And this election sets the tone for the rest of the session as the Speaker of the House presides over the chamber. This position carries significant weight when it comes to setting policy goals, deciding on rules that regulate procedure in the chamber and making committee assignments.

Corin Cates-Carney Arren, who was nominated for these leadership positions in the House and Senate?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Sure. So I think the leadership race in the House was more contentious. The person who was elected speaker is Representative Matt Regier, and he's from Kalispell. He emerged victorious over Representative Casey Knudsen, who's a Republican from Malta. And Knudsen was the Speaker Pro Tempore, which is a lesser leadership position last session and was seen by many as going to kind of follow that path into the speakership. But Regier ultimately emerged with more votes. He definitely comes from a more conservative side of the caucus. And in the '21 session, he actually ran for speaker at that time as well, but lost. And in the Senate, we saw a race between Senator Jason Ellsworth from Hamilton and Senator Keith Regier, who's actually Matt Regier's father, also from Kalispell. And in that race, I think the gulf between the two candidates was smaller. But Keith Regier, as with his son, was seen as being more allied to the right, and Ellsworth was seen as more of a bridge-building figure. And Ellsworth emerged victorious in that leadership race for Senate president.

Corin Cates-Carney So a more moderate Republican in the Senate in leadership and a more conservative Republican in the House, it sounds like.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit To simplify it. Yeah.

Corin Cates-Carney Looking at these two leadership positions, Shaylee, what kind of tone do you think that, looking at the House, Speaker Regier's election sets up for the session?

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, the House tends to be a little more contentious, a little more rowdy than the Senate in general. And so the tone that the speaker election said, that still remains to be seen. But we should get a pretty good idea of that soon. Party leaders make committee assignments for all legislators in their chamber. They appoint chairs to preside over those committees. And that can really make a difference in the level of consideration each bill gets, who gets heard in those committees on different policies and those appointments can be based off experience and expertise or politics, maybe a mixture of the both. And then the speaker also has significant sway in the debate over the rules that regulate procedure during the session. And that has been a pretty contentious debate in the past among lawmakers. So I talked with Representative David Bedey. He's a more moderate conservative in the party and he'll be keeping an eye on both of these debates to see how new leaders respond to differing views in the party.

Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton We have a pretty even split in terms of where people stand on this issue in our party, and I think the challenge for leadership, now it will be Speaker Elect Regier, is to recognize that difference and to bridge the gaps. Too often in the politics that we have today, it's the politics of diminishing your opponents, whether they're across the aisle or they're in your own party.

Shaylee Ragar Bedey noted that moderates do have some recourse. They can formally object to committee assignments if they feel like they're unfair to their faction of the party, and they can also align with Democrats, as they've done in the past on some issues, and that can prove powerful.

Corin Cates-Carney So let's move on to Democrats. They also were in Helena last week to elect their leadership. What were some of the takeaways from their selections?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Well, the Democrats, as a fairly small caucus, tend to keep their internal divides pretty minimal. And I think that was reflected in the leadership races there in the House, the 2021 session's Minority Leader Kim Abbott from Helena, she fended off a challenge from Representative Marilyn Marler from Missoula. And it seems to me pretty easily maintained her minority leadership. And in the Senate, there was no opposition. Senator Pat Flowers from Bozeman. Fresh off a win in the November elections, he will be the minority leader over there in the upper chamber.

Corin Cates-Carney Republicans now have supermajority control in the statehouse. They have 102 seats. That means their members are seated and just over two thirds of the entire legislature. What kind of power does this give them in the statehouse that they haven't had in the past?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit The big thing that the supermajority allows is for Republicans to refer constitutional amendments to the voters in the upcoming election without needing any support from the minority Democrats. It requires a two-thirds vote. They have that and then some, as you said, and they'll be able to propose amendments to the Constitution because of that. Now, whether they actually have the support within the caucus, which as we've seen is divided, to make that happen is a separate question. But Democrats at the very least, are concerned about what this could mean. For example, the Constitution's privacy protections, which the Supreme Court holds as being protective of access to abortion in the state.

Corin Cates-Carney The other big news last week was that we got our first look at the governor's proposed budget. Let's bring in Ellis and Eric who've been tracking that. What are some of the early takeaways?

Ellis Juhlin The governor's office has said this is a historic and conservative budget, although it does include more spending. A good chunk of spending from the budget will be going towards the state health department, state hospitals and prison systems that have been underfunded in recent years. Another big component is paying off all debt. The governor's office has been putting out the slogan "Debt Free in '23," and building the state's rainy day funds. Here's a little bit more of what Gianforte said at a press conference previewing the budget prior to its release.

Gov. Greg Gianforte It is balanced, fiscally responsible and avoids cuts to essential services. Our budget is built for hard-working Montana families.

Corin Cates-Carney So if the characteristic of this budget is that it's historic and conservative, but it does include some spending increases. Let's get a little bit more context on that. Eric, what can you tell us about how much spending is being proposed and how that might compare to budgets in the recent past?

Eric Dietrich So people in the legislature debate what conservative means in terms of the state budget a bunch. But the governor's office is arguing that the right yardstick to use is comparing the budget to inflation, which has, of course, been pretty high the last couple of years. So under the budget they're proposing, which of course, is just the kind of the first draft that the legislature will take a crack at, the general fund spending would rise about 4.5% on average each of the next two years that the budget applies to. And that's compared to about 1% increases under the prior Gianforte budget, the one they put forward two years ago. And then you compare that to inflation, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has been 14% over the last two years. So that makes a four and a half percent increase seem relatively small.

Corin Cates-Carney We've heard Gianforte talk about income and property tax cuts on the way. What are those looking like in this budget?

Eric Dietrich So if you'll recall, last time around in 2021, one of the things they did was they cut the state's top income tax rate. They want to do more of that this time. They want to take the state income tax rate down from 6.5% to 5.9% in the state's top bracket.

Ellis Juhlin The budget also includes a one time property tax rebate up to $1,000 for homeowners once a year over the next two years. It's also worth noting there are no tax rebates planned for renters in the budget.

Corin Cates-Carney A lot of Montanans are thinking about housing right now, especially affordable housing, as prices skyrocket. The governor set up a task force on this issue this summer. What do we know about how housing costs are addressed in the governor's budget?

Eric Dietrich The big piece of spending in the proposed budget is a $200 million program. It's essentially an infrastructure support program to make it easier for places that want to build high density like apartment style housing. And what that would do is that would provide some money to help build the streets and sewer lines that are necessary to support that development, which are often very expensive and can kind of be constraints on getting that stuff built.

Ellis Juhlin So the budget doesn't include any state tax credits to subsidize below market rate housing, which was a recommendation that had been offered by the task force. This budget reflects the Gianforte administration's overall strategy to bring prices down by increasing housing across the state rather than subsidizing affordable housing in particular.

Corin Cates-Carney So this budget kind of serves as a roadmap for where the Gianforte administration would like to see policy go. Where do we go from here?

Eric Dietrich So it's important to recognize that this is really a starting point for negotiations that will play out for the next three or four months. Even though we have a Republican governor and a Republican controlled legislature, like, they're not going to necessarily agree on everything. There's going to be debate. They're going to change things. So we'll see where things end up.

Corin Cates-Carney Before we go, I'm curious what you all are going to be watching this session. Lawmakers only do this once every two years. There's new power dynamics at play. It's Gianforte's second budget before he'll need to seek re-election to stay in office. What are you all keeping an eye out for?

Eric Dietrich So broadly, I'm really curious to see how housing policy develops out of the legislature, both the spending that we've been talking about here and other policy things, too. Like there's a lot of talk about zoning reform, kind of reining in how much power local governments have to control what's built in their communities. And there's bipartisan discussion about that. Like, pretty much everybody seems to see housing as one of Montana's, perhaps Montana's single biggest cost of living issues right now, and there are a bunch of ideas out there. I don't think that those debates are going to necessarily reflect traditional partisan divides. So it's going to be super fascinating to see how that policy comes out in the end.

Ellis Juhlin I'll be interested in just seeing how the supermajority plays out and how Democrats will work to have their voices heard despite being in the minority in the legislature in a big way this session.

Corin Cates-Carney Shaylee, what about you?

Shaylee Ragar I'll be keeping an eye on how Republican lawmakers in the legislature approach abortion policy this session. Last session, we watched them pass a number of restrictive policies on abortion. And in light of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and national protection for abortion, you know, lawmakers are eyeing that once again. But as Arren mentioned at the top of the episode, Montana does have a right to privacy that that protects abortion, and Republican lawmakers may go after that.

Corin Cates-Carney And you, Arren?

Arren Kimbel-Sannit Well, I am quite proudly not really a policy wonk. So I am really especially interested to see how the levers of power get used and, really, kind of what factions within the Republican Party end up on top throughout this session. And I think a lot of that will be about looking back to their summer platform convention, where there was an initiative to make Republican lawmakers effectively vote in fealty to the state party's platform. And how that plays out and how that will create divides within the caucus, I think will be really interesting and yes, have a big role in what kind of policies get passed.

Corin Cates-Carney Well, as the levers of power get pulled, we'll bring you the context. This has been The Session, a preview of the policy and politics inside the Montana statehouse. Listen for new episodes each Monday starting January 9th. The Session is produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. Thanks, everybody.

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