Gianforte trumpets economic growth; Democrats focus on the housing crisis
In his State of the State Address, Gov. Gianforte said Montana's economy is coming up roses, but Democrats found plenty of dandelions. And Flathead County commissioners have drawn widespread criticism for their views of the county's homeless population.
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, Governor Gianforte gave his State of the State Address this week and right off the bat declared his administration's agenda.
"Our key focus has always been, and remains, creating greater opportunity for more Montanans and protecting the Montana way of life."
Sally Mauk And, economic opportunity, Holly, was the overriding theme of the governor's well-delivered speech.
Holly Michels It really was, Sally. Gianforte opened the speech by saying Montana's accomplished a lot during his time in office on the economic front. Which is what you'd expect to hear from a governor giving the State of the State. And he also talked a little bit about what he wants to still see done there. He talked about record low unemployment, companies like Hyundai moving to Montana, job creation, growing internship slots, all those indicators of a strong economy.
The governor also focused on work done by his lieutenant governor, Kristen Juras, on what's being called the red tape relief package of bills that are moving through the Legislature now. This goes all the way back to when Gianforte first took office. He directed Juras to review state laws and regulations that they deemed burdensome and unnecessary that might stand in the way of economic growth in Montana; Directed her to bring bills and proposals to remove those. And that has led to where we're at now. There's about 160 bills in total that are across a bunch of different categories, everything from, you know, alcohol regulations to professional licensing boards. And those bills are working their way through the process now. That falls into the bucket of things Gianforte says still need to be improved.
There's other things he called out as wanting to get done this session. That includes his tax policies we talked about on the last show. There's a mix of using the state's surplus to issue $500 million in property tax rebates and pay off state's bonded debt. Then there's these permanent changes, like reducing the top income tax rate. You know, these kind of pocketbook issues and touting a strong economy, like you said, I think were really the main focus of the speech over more social type issues, though he did dip into those as well.
Sally Mauk Rob, while the economy was the main focus of his speech, the governor also threw some meat to his conservative base, reiterating, for example, his opposition to legal abortion.
Rob Saldin Yeah Sally, there certainly was some red meat, as you would expect in a speech like this. The one that actually caught my eye as the clearest example of that came with the somewhat gratuitous slam on Joe Biden over fentanyl and the southern border.
You know, I actually thought his rather lengthy discussion of abortion was a strength of the speech. That certainly is a key topic for his base, but there is no question that this is an issue Gianforte himself cares deeply about. It's connected to his faith and so forth. So, he comes to it honestly. He also, to my eye, at least, went a step further than some anti-abortion politicians and activists seem to be willing to do these days. You know, for some of these folks, you do increasingly get the impression that it really is just vindictive and about control. Because if you really honestly care about life and want to facilitate that, you wouldn't just be obsessed with punishing those who seek an abortion and those who would provide that service. Rather, you'd want to attempt to create a society that supports a culture of life. So, in practice, that would mean thinking seriously about, you know, how can we help young mothers? How can we support struggling families with limited resources, how can we promote adoption and so forth? And there was quite a lot of that in Gianforte speech. Now, of course, that's not going to win him any converts among pro-choicers, but it was the kind of serious, substantive way of approaching that issue that was a departure from the kind of crude theatrical ridiculousness that has, frankly, been so common in our politics in recent years.
Sally Mauk Rob, the governor also expressed his support for more, "parental rights" in education. And here's what he said.
"Let's empower Montana parents to choose what's best for their family and their kids. Let's protect parental rights."
Sally Mauk Rob, the "parental rights" phrase has become code for a lot of things.
Rob Saldin Yeah, it sure has, Sally. I mean, just take a step back here. You know, education for a long time was one of those issues that Democrats had a big advantage on. You'd see that in all the public opinion data regarding, you know, which party do you trust on issue X? Well, education was one that always had Republicans on the defensive. But the politics of that have really changed over the last few years. This is now an issue that's more of a jump ball or even one that may slightly favor Republicans. And this whole parental rights rhetoric is the frame that Republicans are using these days to capture a set of concerns that their voters have about American public education. A key piece of that grew out of the school closures during the pandemic, and in particular, the role that teachers' unions played in demanding those closures. This was, you know, not necessarily the case here in Montana, but nationally. It was a big story that captured the broader frustrations with COVID policies.
The other key thing here is, of course, what's known as critical race theory. And a lot of people kind of dismiss this as silly and say, 'come on, they aren't teaching this graduate school concept to second graders, how ridiculous.' And of course, that's true in the most literal sense. But when people complain about critical race theory, they're using that as a stand-in for a much larger set of concerns about, basically, education being too politicized. That the Ed schools, which credential teachers are awash in leftist ideology and that this permeates down to our K-12 schools in the form of anti-Americanism and an obsession with identity politics and so forth. Now, Gianforte didn't go into all of that, but those are the things that have really been animating this issue for the Republican base. And he doesn't have to go into all those issues for those to come top of mind for his supporters. And, it's maybe worth pointing out just quickly here, Sally, that this is another area, though, where it wasn't all just red meat. You know, he did have some kind words to say about K-12 teachers and increasing teacher pay, noted that his daughter is a teacher. Some of his language, at least, is the type of thing that could easily come out of the mouth of a Democratic governor.
Sally Mauk Holly, State Senator Shannon O'Brien of Missoula gave the Democratic response to the governor's speech. And not surprisingly, her picture of Montana wasn't as rosy as Gianforte's, especially when it comes to the housing crisis. Here's O'Brien.
"Businesses can't thrive when they cannot find the staff. What good are new jobs if people can't afford to live where they work?"
Sally Mauk The lack of affordable housing is a current conundrum for both the administration and the Legislature, Holly.
Holly Michels It is, and it's something we've heard Democrats already this session criticize Gianforte for. They don't like his proposal to address housing in his budget, which is $200 million, to help communities sort of hasten the process for water and sewer approvals. They want to see more direct investment in housing. And that was just one of the criticisms we heard from O'Brien, who I think was pretty forceful in her speech. She started out by calling the governor out of touch, saying that if you are wealthy like Gianforte, then you might like the things he's proposing. But, she argued that they don't do much for regular Montanans. I think we heard her say in the clip, you know, we heard the governor emphasize job creation and new employers coming to the state. And O'Brien said those are great, but what does that mean if companies can't hire workers who can live in the communities where they're located?
You know, O'Brien also focused a lot on access to and the affordability of childcare. This is another thing Democrats have been pretty critical of Gianforte's budget for. He's proposing a $1,200 dollar a year child tax credit. And Democrats want to see something more specific to increasing capacity for child care and the cost of that care. That was another place O'Brien pointed out like the housing issue, you know, companies can't hire people because workers need to stay at home with kids. That's not helping the economy. I think we can expect to hear a lot more of these arguments as this session continues, from Democrats, but we'll be watching pretty closely to see what traction they're able to gain with Democrats being in the superminority this time.
Sally Mauk Rob, O'Brien also took this dig at her Republican colleagues.
"The Republican majority has been spending precious time, not on the economic issues that should unite us, but rather on the divisive agenda that divides Montana."
Sally Mauk And then she went on to say, Rob, but let's all work together.
Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally. You know, much of this is just simply a function of Republicans having a supermajority. They've won the elections, and now they have the numbers to basically do whatever they want. They don't need to work with Shannon O'Brien and the Democrats.
But, you know, more generally to just follow up on your comments, Holly, I mean, I thought O'Brien's basic message there was the right one for Democrats. She was focused like a laser beam on working class themes and contrasted the needs and interests of the vast majority of Montanans against those of the wealthy, including, as you noted, Holly, the governor. You know, that's the kind of thing Montana Democrats need to do if they have any hope of being competitive again statewide. The big challenge there is that so much of the discourse nationally around the party isn't about that stuff that O'Brien is talking about. A lot of it focuses on the culture-war issues, which, at least in the context of Montana, plays to the advantage of Republicans. So, it's very tough to break through our nationalized politics and assert, I think, as O'Brien attempted to, that Montana Democrats have a different set of priorities or points of emphasis.
Sally Mauk There was a lot packed into the governor's speech and the Democratic response. But the issues they discussed, of course, have ripple effects at the local level. Most obviously, the housing crisis. And Flathead County, commissioners, Holly, recently sent out a controversial letter urging the community to, "reject all things that empower the homeless lifestyle."
Holly Michels Yeah, this letter came on the heels of reporting by the Flathead Beacon about issues with the unhoused population in that county. It starts out by saying the area will continue to have an increasing population of people without a place to live if locals continue to do what the letter calls "enabling them." The commission criticized a low-barrier shelter as doing that. They went on to say that people take advantage of services and that some people without homes are what the letter called, "a progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject, help and live life unmoored." That's pretty counter to the recent piece from The Beacon, it talks about the high cost of living in the Flathead, it's making hard for people to keep homes and apartments there. People who run services in the community said that there's more women, kids, seniors and veterans without homes in the valley. There's also the recent closure of the Fairbridge Inn, which was an option for a lot of low income people. So, a lot of things at play there.
Sally Mauk Rob, Kalispell isn't the only community grappling with a growing number of homeless people. But this response from the Flathead Board of County Commissioners saying it's a "chosen lifestyle" shows frankly remarkable ignorance about the issue.
Rob Saldin Well, it does. It captures certainly a piece of what's going on. You know, one of the frustrations with the issue of homelessness is that we use that to capture so many different things. There are all the groups that Holly just mentioned. But, you know, you're also dealing with, at times, serious substance abuse issues and all this. It's a complicated issue. I'm not so sure that the solutions are as easy and simple as some suggest. This, as you note Sally, it's not just an issue facing Kalispell. You know, anyone who's visited Portland or San Francisco or any number of other places in recent years can tell you that this is going on in a lot of places. One of the challenges here is that there are a lot of different demographic groups that fall under this category, and meeting the needs of each of those sometimes takes different strategies.
Sally Mauk Rob and Holly, we're out of time. Thank you and I'll talk to you next week.
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. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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