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Week 1 shows Republicans' competing visions. What to do with an extra $2 billion?

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Republican legislators in Montana appear as divided as their counterparts in Congress. Rep. Matt Rosendale gets the spotlight in the fight for a new House speaker. Montana lawmakers must decide how to spend $2 billion. A draft resolution blows a loud dog whistle over Native American rights.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk Holly, the Legislature convened this week with Republicans holding a supermajority, but that doesn't mean Republicans are always going to vote as a solid block, and that was evident this week when a handful of Republicans voted with Democrats on House rules governing how many votes it will take to blast a bill out of committee. Why is this so significant?

Holly Michels Yeah, it's something that can sound pretty wonky, but I think it's one of the first answers you're getting to one of the biggest questions I think we've all had going into this legislative session. And that's what the GOP supermajority you mentioned, what that's going to look like, what that's going to feel like. Republicans hold 68 of 100 House seats, which means they can pass anything they want, even legislative referendums with no support from Democrats. But what's going on here — you know we talk about the ratio of Republicans to Democrats all the time — the thing that's really at play here is this third coalition that's played a major role in the Legislature for several sessions now. That's this Conservative Solutions Caucus, which are more centrist Republicans who vote with Democrats on a narrow set of bills in recent sessions that have enacted some pretty dramatic policy changes. That's stuff like expanding Medicaid in Montana and finally breaking resistance to bonding for major infrastructure projects. And this rule change can really be seen as benefiting that caucus, which is why we're hearing opposition from Republicans more to the right about passing it.

What the change does is it lowers that threshold needed to take a bill that's been killed off by a committee and bring it back to the House floor for debate with the whole body. That's called blasting a bill. Last session it took 60 votes. This session it will take 55. So that lower threshold means fewer Republicans need to join with Democrats, who lost seats in the House in the last election, to get something killed off in a committee which might skew more conservative than the full body, back into the full House for debate. I think, interestingly enough, an amendment to try to put that threshold back up to 60 votes failed in the House this week, with 55 legislators voting against it. So that 55 number is, you know, pretty much right where they're at right now.

Sally Mauk All right. Well, we'll keep an eye on that number. And Republican Representative Jerry Schillinger was among those opposed to the rules change. And here's what he had to say.

"This motion, these motions are nothing but an attempt to neuter the voices of the people of Montana that have sent the conservative candidates to serve in the Legislature."

Sally Mauk Neuter might be too strong a word, Holly, but I get his point.

Holly Michels Yeah, we heard that opposition from Schillinger and other Republicans opposed to this change saying, look, voters sent 68 of us in the House, a supermajority, to the Legislature. Why are we going to, what they perceive as, limit this power? Why wouldn't we take this mandate we got from voters and run with it. You know, Republicans who wanted that lower threshold, they're saying this enables the full House to weigh in, we should have a full body, consider policies when they want to. They're trying to flip the argument and say, look, a small minority of the House is the committee that could kill off a bill. You know, that might be only 20 legislators or smaller. So let's make sure for some of these pieces that may come up later in the session, we can have the majority of the House look at something.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob, the split in the Montana Legislature between these moderate and ultra-conservative Republicans mirrors what we've been seeing all week in the U.S. House as they have voted, or tried to anyway, on a new speaker. It seems like, Rob, Republicans across the country seem to be searching for their identity.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. Or, you know, maybe less of a search and more of a fight over competing visions. You know, this divide among Republicans in the Legislature, it's often portrayed as you, Holly, and Sally just did as kind of a moderates versus conservatives thing. And there's definitely something to that. But the Solutions Caucus people, it's maybe worth noting, reject that moderate label. Some of them, in fact, call themselves the Conservative Solutions Caucus. And it is certainly true that the folks in that group are conservatives, at least in the traditional sense of that term. Of course, a term like conservative, like a lot of these descriptors is something of a moving target. But to me, at least, generally speaking, the key distinction is that the Solutions Caucus crowd sees itself as being serious about governing, and it isn't hostile to, "the system.".

By contrast, many of the people behind this new Freedom Caucus and others like them have an orientation that's more anti-establishment and could be described as even radical, which the Solutions Caucus types might point out is actually something that is quite the opposite of traditional Conservatism. So the Freedom Caucus crowd, it's more confrontational, it's more performative, eager to shock and scandalize those they don't like. It's eager to attack and destroy institutions, an entire system, even, that they consider to be corrupt. So the Freedom Caucus back in Congress and this new Freedom Caucus in Helena share more than just a name. This looks like it's going to be our own Montana version of that group of Republicans you note, Sally, that's been opposing Kevin McCarthy as Speaker: Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and our own Matt Rosendale.

Sally Mauk And Mr. Rosendale has been getting quite a bit of attention. He is one of the people that the cameras have focused on this week as he's risen to oppose McCarthy being picked as the speaker.

Rob Saldin Right. And, you know, one thing that stands out, he's really aligned himself, especially in the later votes, with some of the least serious and most bomb throwing members of his caucus. You know, after a deal was made that brought many of the dissenters into the McCarthy fold, Rosendale was one of just a few holdouts, along with Boebert and Gates. You know, by this point, even Paul Gosar was with McCarthy. And Rosendale even at his own little theatrical moment in the 12th roll call when he dramatically announced his vote and he was then shown yucking it up with his buddies. So, I'm not sure he's going to win any popularity contests among his Republican colleagues back in Congress.

You know, Sally, maybe one other thing quickly to note a bit here that's interesting is we've got a real clear contrast now between Rosendale and Ryan Zinke, who has been a steadfast McCarthy person. And, of course, those are the two obvious possibilities for the GOP nomination to take on Jon Tester in next year's U.S. Senate election.

Sally Mauk Holly, the main job of this Montana Legislature, as with any, is to pass a balanced budget. Most sessions usually start out facing a deficit and have to decide on painful cuts. But this session is starting out with about a $2 billion surplus, and the fights are going to be over how to spend that 2 billion.

Holly Michels Yeah, that will be the major theme of this session. The surplus came from a lot of different places, and I think where it comes from and where it should be directed is going to be the main friction that we see. A lot of surplus, we're hearing, was tied to incomes that went up during the pandemic, whether that's from federal stimulus or other federal programs like Paycheck Protection Act or just wages that have risen over the last few years, which meant across the board people were paying more in income taxes. So Republicans and Democrats are both saying since a lot of that surplus came from taxpayers, money should go back to them. But the question of, you know, how much in what form and who benefits the most are becoming real points of contention.

Property tax rebates is one of the places to talk about that. You see agreement that there should be something done there in some fashion. But then where Democrats don't agree with Republican proposals, as they say, that doesn't target renters as much. We've also got, you know, you and Rob are just talking about this new caucus, the far right Montana Freedom Caucus, and that includes lawmakers who previously said we need to give the surplus fully back to taxpayers versus doing things like doing major repairs at places like the state prison and state hospital, which is something that's proposed in the governor's budget.

We're also hearing some simmering disagreement between Republicans about the governor's budget and how much it puts toward increasing rates that some health care and social service providers get paid. Some Republicans and then Democrats are saying those rates need to come up from what the governor's budget is proposing and making them more permanent versus some reliance on one-time-only funds compared to what the governor suggested.

And there's also some debate starting about how much money to put in the bank. Because, you know, we have this surplus, but we're also hearing a lot of talk about an anticipated recession, maybe sort of 20 year event, and how we position Montana to be able to weather that as best as possible.

So it's early in the session in that the budget is already one of the main things we're focusing on. Right now it's broken into very specific topics that groups are debating. Pretty soon they're going to start making decisions for each of their sections and then they'll have it all rolled up into one. We're going to see a lot of debate and a lot of action coming pretty soon on the budget.

With the 2022 election over, Montana Republicans hold power not seen in the state Capitol in nearly a century. Lawmakers arrive in Helena on Jan. 2 to begin a new session. Before then, here's a recap of what's happened and a look forward at what to expect.

Sally Mauk Rob I think in some ways a surplus is a trickier sea for legislators to navigate than a budget deficit, and it puts a glaring spotlight on how differently Democrats and Republicans view the role of government.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think that's right, Sally. You know, it's a little counterintuitive. You'd think that with a huge surplus, you could kind of make everybody happy. But it does really bring out a key distinction between the parties, and that is about what is the role of government.

You know, Democrats, generally speaking, tend to want a more active role for government, particularly when it comes to addressing economic and social problems. And in fact, most Democrats would contend that for a capitalist society to function appropriately, you've got to have a strong public sector to provide certain core services that the private sector is ill equipped to manage, that provides some basic levels of social equality, that provides a safety net for those who fall through the cracks and creates some needed stability.

Republicans, meanwhile, tend to want a smaller footprint for government in general. They want to empower citizens to be self-sufficient, to help themselves. And this, they think, is preferable because people are better positioned at the end of the day then is government to make decisions about what they want and what they need. They see government as relatively inefficient and wasteful. And Republicans also argue that dependance on government is bad, both for society, which has to foot the bill, but also for those individuals who are reliant on government, because it's bad for the soul and it makes for a less fulfilling life. Right?

I mean, obviously a lot more could be said about all of that, but that very basic difference in outlook is certainly a key element of what's going to shape a lot of what we see this session.

Sally Mauk Holly, Kalispell Republican Senator Keith Regier has drafted a resolution calling on Congress to eliminate Indian reservations. And Native American lawmakers were quick to denounce it as an attack on Montana's Native American population. And it's hard to see it any differently.

Holly Michels This resolution, if passed would serve as a message from the Montana Legislature asking Congress to investigate the reservation system and look for alternatives. It's important to note that resolutions typically get called "letters to Santa" because they don't really accomplish anything. But their language can make some pretty impactful statements on where a legislator might be on an issue, their views or what they're trying to communicate to their constituents. And that's a major piece of what's happening here. And Regier did tell The Daily Montanan he expects this resolution to get introduced. He wasn't sure if it would go anywhere, but it's a conversation he wants to have. So it does say things like, the reservation system is based only on race. The resolution says that's in opposition to the U.S. Constitution. It also says the sovereign nation status the tribes hold is somehow opposed to the U.S. Constitution, and there is U.S. Supreme Court rulings that speak to the opposite of that, see the relationship between tribes and the U.S. Government is of a political, not racial nature.

Sally Mauk Rob, Regier's This resolution is less a dog whistle to the ultra right and more a loud siren that may not go anywhere, as Holly pointed out, but it still serves, I think, a nefarious purpose.

Rob Saldin Well, it's a good example of the divide in the Republican Party. He isn't on that list of Freedom Caucus members that we discussed earlier, but he's definitely aligned with that wing of the party. And one thing that stands out here is that this proposal, it isn't very serious in terms of the substance. Right? It's symbolic, but that's what a lot of Republican voters want. They like the aggressiveness. They like the confrontation. They like the gasps that it generates in its opponents. You know, that's a feature, not a bug. And this works for them politically. If their voters didn't like this, they wouldn't be doing it.

Sally Mauk Well, Rob and Holly, we're out of time. It's great to be talking politics with you both again and we'll do it again next week. Thank you.

Rob Saldin Thanks Sally.

Holly Michels Thank you Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in during the legislative session online Friday afternoons and on-air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m. Subscribewherever you get your podcasts.

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.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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