Montana lawmakers elected leaders Wednesday to shape legislative priorities during the 2021 session. Individual caucus meetings showed a stark contrast in how Republicans and Democrats will approach governing during the coronavirus pandemic.
MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar and YPR's Kevin Trevellyan covered the gatherings from the Capitol. They discuss their reporting.
Shaylee Ragar: Kevin, one of the biggest stories of the election was Republicans taking control of the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years. What did the new GOP caucus leaders say about this during their first meeting since the election?
Kevin Trevellyan: They’re ecstatic to work with Governor-elect Greg Gianforte. Here’s Republican Cary Smith, who was voted Senate majority leader Wednesday.
"I can’t think of anything that I’ve been more excited about, even Christmas or whatever. My marriage was a great thing when we got married, but I’m so excited for this legislative session. This is the first opportunity many of us have to work with a Republican governor."
During a speech in the House chambers, newly elected Speaker of the House Wylie Galt said it was time to change how Helena does business.
Shaylee Ragar: Gianforte sent out a statement yesterday congratulating the new leadership. He said he looks forward to working across the aisle and he talked about fulfilling the mandate Montanans have given their elected leaders.
Kevin Trevellyan: And Republicans feel they hold that mandate. Senate President Mark Blasdel said the GOP’s sweeping success in the election means Montanans support Republican policy goals.
“Less interference in your lives, producing jobs and opening the economy back up. I think those are things that resounded to the citizens, and obviously they elected us in a big way.”
Blasdel said he’s eager to work with an executive branch that won’t veto so many GOP bills.
Shaylee Ragar: Democrats are in a weaker position without that backstop, the veto pen, on more conservative policies. Democrats have also at times worked to accomplish policy goals with moderate Republicans who sometimes break with more conservative GOP leadership when voting. Not only have Democrats lost 10 seats in the Legislature, but there are fewer moderate Republicans this year who’ve been replaced by more conservative members of their party.
Kevin Trevellyan: Did Democrats acknowledge that they’ll have an uphill battle?
Shaylee Ragar: They did in both the House and the Senate. Sen. Jill Cohenour, who was elected Senate Minority Leader, made a point to say that she had experience working with Republican Gov. Judy Martz when she was first elected in 2002.
"We as a group are going to have a difficult journey. But we are a very small and strategic group of warriors."
In the lawmaker’s first meeting, it was clear that Democrats and Republicans in the statehouse are thinking differently about how the upcoming session will look - starting with how they’ll do business during the pandemic.
For some background, in a letter to lawmakers this week, Lewis and Clark County’s Public Health Officer recommended that legislators participate virtually to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Based on attendance yesterday, Democratic lawmakers were more inclined to follow that recommendation than Republicans.
Kevin Trevellyan: Right, a few Republican senators Zoomed into their meeting, but most, a couple dozen, were present in the building. Although there were signs on the chamber entrances saying masks and social distancing were required, most GOP lawmakers didn’t follow those precautions.
Senators shook hands, patted each other on the back and generally mingled around the chamber. Reporters watching the House Republican caucus said it was a similar scene, with few masks and minimal social distancing.
Shaylee, how did things look on the Democratic side?
Shaylee Ragar: Most Democrats attended their meeting remotely. The few who were in the capitol socially distanced and wore masks, although some of the lawmakers removed them while speaking during the caucuses.
Newly-elected House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said Democrats will prioritize following public health guidelines when they negotiate new rules.
“It’s just incredibly important that we’re able to get down to business and start to hammer out how we’re going to do this safely.” 07
It’s unclear how the legislature is planning on holding the session,whether that be in person, virtually, or a hybrid of the two.
Kevin Trevellyan: What other priorities do the Democrats have?
I talked with Senate Minority Leader Cohenour about this. She said Democrats will focus on protecting policies like Medicaid expansion. She said they'll also push back against proposals to cut funding for public education and other social services.
“So I’m a little worried about maintaining those public services.”
Kevin, what do you think we’ll see Republicans champion this session?
Kevin Trevellyan: Republicans have talked about freezing or cutting state spending. They also talk about other conservative goals, like protecting the Second Amendment, cutting taxes and regulations.
Both Democrats and Republicans say they do want to work with each other this session, although the imbalance of power is the elephant in the room.
Shaylee Ragar: Sounds like it should be an interesting session, thanks for chatting Kevin.
Kevin Trevellyan: You too.
Chris Aadland, Eric Deitrich and Mara Silvers at Montana Free Press, and Holly Michels of Lee Newspapers contributed to the reporting.