State lawmakers filled the halls of Montana's Capitol Monday for the first day of the 2017 legislative session. As they entered the legislative chambers for the first time, party leaders promised civil, bi-partisan work, despite upcoming fights over the direction of the state budget and policy.
Republican leadership, which holds a majority in both the House and Senate, held a press conference early in the day to outline their plans for the upcoming 90 day session.
"We have a problem in the state," Knudsen said. "We have 12 years of growth under Democratic administrations and we don’t have the revenue to pay for it."
In an emailed response, the House Minority leader, Jenny Eck from Helena, said House Democrats are focused on "passing a state budget that is fair to Montana’s working and middle-class families."
Democrats will hold their own press conference on day two of the session to challenge the Republican message.
Later Monday, in his address to the House chamber, Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen acknowledged the sharp differences the parties will face in the upcoming days:
"We can disagree. And believe me, we are going to disagree on this floor and in committee. But I expect those disagreements to be civil and professional."
Down the hall, on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Jon Sesso from Butte also asked his fellow senators to approach disagreements without the harshness of campaign season rhetoric:
The Democratic leader made this pledge to the Republican majority:
"As Democrats in this chamber we plan to be a part of the majority of senators working on the best ideas to move Montana forward."
Passing a balanced budget is a constitutional requirement for lawmakers during the session. Both parties say passing a reasonable budget is a priority. And once the parties dive into the governor’s budget proposal, it typically doesn’t take long for first-day rhetoric about cooperation to turn into pointed partisanship. Republican leadership has already called Democratic Governor Steve Bullock’s budget proposal, "grossly irresponsible."
After Governor Bullock and the other statewide elected officials took their oaths of office and were sworn in today, Bullock called on all elected officials to put aside partisan politics to work for the good of all Montanans.
Bullock welcomed all 150 members of the 65th Legislature. He said they share the honor of representing Montana. He urged them to remember they’re more than just Democrats or Republicans, they share the title Montanans:
"And Montanans elected us to serve, not to score political points by putting their interests aside," Bullock said.
The governor said he’s optimistic elected officials can work together to pass a responsible budget and further grow the Montana economy. Bullock said basically they all want the same things, like good paying jobs that will support families:
"We want our sons and daughters to be treated fairly and get a good education, we want to enjoy our clean air and our water, and our public lands, we want to feel safe and be safe in our communities, we want to worship where and how we chose, we want to love who we chose without fear of discrimination," Bullock said.
Bullock is the lone Democrat to survive last fall’s general election for the top four statewide offices. He also faces Republican majorities in both chambers at the Montana Legislature.
House Majority Leader Ron Ehli called for an open dialog between the legislative and executive branches of government. He noted that the stairways and elevators in the Capitol go up as well as down. The governor’s office is on the 2nd floor, while lawmakers largely occupy the 3rd floor.
"We would like to extend an open invitation to the governor to visit the 3rd floor of the Capitol, on occasion," Ehli said. "For again, this is where the true representation of Montana’s peoples resides. We will encourage the governor to use caution whether in threat or action in wielding the power of his veto pen."
Ehli's remarks reference the fact that Bullock issued 53 vetoes during and after the 2015 Legislative session; 71 came from the 2013 session. An analysis by the Lee State Bureau said that was the most vetoes by any administration in two consecutive sessions.