Eric Dietrich/Montana Free Press
HELENA — On the first day of the 2019 legislative session, House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, stood before reporters to deliver a message: “On day one, Republicans are united and ready to get to work.”
The final hours of the session’s last day, however, proved Montana’s long-standing GOP rift has remained in force and possibly deepened.
The divide became apparent when Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, took the speaker to task in a speech on the floor, rebuking him for removing her from the Legislative Finance Committee and replacing her with a male representative who she said had less experience.
“I believe this sends a powerful message to women in the state of Montana, to young girls,” Ballance said. “When a successful woman can be replaced by a freshman man, I think that is a travesty.”
Ballance had previously served as the finance committee co-chair. She’s also a member of the so-called Solutions Caucus, a group of moderate Republicans who occasionally collaborate with Democrats to get legislation to the governor’s desk. That collaboration has, at times, frustrated more hardline Republicans and GOP leadership.
“It’s very much about the Solutions Caucus and the anger that’s built over the session,” Ballance said about her lost committee role in an interview. “They would say [it isn’t], but obviously it plays a part. How could it not?”
Still, the Solutions Caucus emerged as the clear victor this session.
At the start of 2019, the caucus successfully revamped House rules and removed much of the speaker’s ability to stifle bills.
A Solutions Caucus-led bill reformed political central committee practices, despite loud clamor and public attacks mostly coming from right-wing Republicans in Cascade County.
Solutions Caucus members were also the chief architects of the IDEA Act, which brought Montana its first infrastructure funding program in nearly a decade.
Arguably the biggest win for the Solutions Caucus, however, is Medicaid expansion. House Bill 658 renewed the program for another six years, much to hardline Republicans’ ire.
In his final address on the House floor, Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, accused lawmakers of ignoring the will of Montanans who rejected a ballot initiative last fall that would have renewed Medicaid expansion funded by a cigarette tax.
“I … have difficulty understanding how we can tell the majority of Montanans that their votes didn’t count on Medicaid expansion,” Tschida said. “How can any of us assuage constituents when they ask us, ‘Why did you ignore our request?’”
Republicans held 58 seats in the House during the 66th legislative session. About 20 of those Republicans tend to vote with the Solutions Caucus, which, combined with the chamber’s 42 Democrats, usually constitutes enough green lights for approval of their priority bills.
“Our caucus seems to have become two separate minorities, one of which differed with my values and my beliefs,” Tschida said of GOP House legislators. “To those 38 specials who held firm to the core beliefs I value, I salute you.”
The Solutions Caucus also had some losses this year, most notably the so-called Save Colstrip bill. The ever-changing bill would have allowed NorthWestern Energy to acquire additional ownership of the coal-fired plant with much of its risk and expense passed on to ratepayers.
The bill could potentially have opened the door for NorthWestern to control a bigger share of the valuable Colstrip transmission line. But an effort to pin the Colstrip proposal to Medicaid expansion’s success proved unpopular both at the Capitol and among the public.
The proposal died on the House floor.
Some Republicans directed a few final digs at the Solutions Caucus during their last week at the Capitol. An effort to bring an ethics complaint against Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, the sponsor of the Medicaid expansion bill, proved unsuccessful. Unseating Ballance from the finance committee, however, appears to have stung.
As chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Ballance was allowed to appoint four finance committee members to serve in the coming interim — two Republicans and two Democrats. She said in an interview that she chose Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, for the Republican seats because they are both key members of the Solutions Caucus.
“[Hertz] made his intent clear that he would have taken them off the committee in favor of this freshman legislator also,” Ballance said. “I figured I’d be the scapegoat.”
The freshman lawmaker Hertz appointed to replace Ballance is Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings.
While 2019 was his first legislative session, Mercer is no stranger to policy. He previously served as U.S. Attorney in the District of Montana and was nominated by George W. Bush to be Associate Attorney General.
Ballance has served in the Legislature since 2013 and has a storied background in business. She worked as an executive at Farmers Insurance and retired as a vice president at the international firm Zurich Financial Services.
Ballance was sole chair of the House Appropriations Committee for two sessions, but this year the speaker made her a co-chair with Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila. Now her powerful legislative position is gone.
“I respect every individual. I don’t look at gender. I work with individuals based on their ability to serve and what they can do for our state,” Hertz said in an interview. “[Ballance] chose not to appoint herself. I have no idea why.”
The speaker side-stepped a question about whether it’s traditional for committee chairs to appoint themselves, saying, “I’ve only been here four sessions.”