Gov. Steve Bullock announces a stay-at-home directive on March 13, 2020.

HELENA — As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended Montana in recent weeks, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has drawn little criticism from elected leaders in either party as he instituted a series of increasingly sweeping public health measures designed to slow the outbreak by closing down many businesses and directing Montanans to shelter in their homes.

That changed Tuesday, as the elected leadership of the Montana Legislature’s Republican majority published a public letter calling on the governor to “rethink” his COVID-19 response and “implement more strategic measures in an effort to re-engage our economy once again.”

Among other points, the GOP leaders fault Bullock for halting evictions for the duration of his stay-at-home order, failing to ensure adequate capacity for the state’s unemployment claim system, and not imposing furloughs at state agencies.

“Montanans who own, operate, or work at the small businesses that make up the Montana economy may never survive the conditions you have created by imposing self-identified ‘safety’ measures,” wrote Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman; President Pro-Term Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell; Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville; Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson; Speaker Pro-Term Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale; and House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula.

The letter comes as President Donald Trump and other national-level Republicans are increasingly vocal about relaxing anti-coronavirus measures that have shuttered much of the U.S. economy. Despite the economic pain those measures cause, public health experts worry that relaxing them too quickly could lead to a renewed surge in cases of COVID-19.

In a Tuesday press conference, Bullock, who is term-limited out of the governor’s office and challenging U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in this fall’s election, said epidemiological data indicates that social distancing measures are flattening the trajectory of Montana’s outbreak, but that it’s too early to know when the state can responsibly begin rolling back its social distancing orders.

“We have to have a healthy population to have a healthy economy,” he said. “I know it’s frustrating that we can’t give a date certain when things will get somewhat normal again.”

Bullock also pointed to a March 26 statement in which GOP leadership expressed unity in support of the state’s pandemic response.

“As much is still unknown about this virus, please be patient as state agency staff are working their hardest and using all available resources to bring about a resolution to our many challenges,” they wrote then. “Together, we will restore normal order to life and business in our great state as quickly as possible.”

“It seems like it will take several weeks to get us up and going, so let’s get this process started.”

—GOP legislative leaders in a public letter to Gov. Steve Bullock

While the March 25 letter stressed that state government had a healthy balance in its emergency funds, the GOP lawmakers now say Bullock should be furloughing state employees in order to maintain the state’s cash reserves. The governor, they wrote, has “shielded government agencies from virtually all the same sacrifices demanded of the private sector.”

“In order to protect the integrity of the office you temporarily hold, we believe it would be in the best interest of Montanans for you to use your authority to take a more focused approach to serving the people, such as making sure the unemployment insurance call center and website are adequately staffed and function at the highest levels of efficiency to allow the unemployed to receive benefits in an expeditious manner,” the Republicans wrote this week.

An April 9 update from legislative fiscal analysts reports that state tax collections so far in the 2020 fiscal year, which ends June 30, are above what the 2019 Legislature assumed when setting the state’s two-year budget. Citing uncertainty about the coronavirus’ revenue impacts, the analysts decline to put a firm estimate on the state’s financial position when the current two-year budget cycle ends in June 2021.

The GOP lawmakers also criticize the Democratic governor for his March 30 order halting evictions, foreclosures and most utility shut-offs while Montanans are under a stay-at-home order.

“Rather than issuing an edict, you could have reached out to rental management associations, bankers, utility owners and others to encourage them to work with Montanans and help them through short-term cash flow problems,” they wrote.

While saying they agree “that all Montanans be advised to keep playing it safe with cleanliness, social distancing, and other recommended safeguards,” the Republicans also urged Bullock to begin looking toward ways to restart Montana’s economy. They suggest beginning in counties with no newly reported coronavirus cases, and potentially leaving hot spots like Gallatin County under more restrictive public health orders.

“It seems like it will take several weeks to get us up and going, so let’s get this process started,” they wrote.

Rep. Llew Jones, the informal leader of GOP “solutions caucus” lawmakers who have at times butted heads with hardline Republicans in legislative leadership roles, also wrote on Facebook April 14 that as “Montana’s plan closed many ‘non-essential’ businesses, there now needs to be a very structure[d] plan defined for starting businesses back up.”

“President Trump is working on a design, as are many state governors,” Jones continued. “In Montana it seems logical that the restart plan needs to reflect that Montana has rural areas that have no cases, and other areas that are harder hit.”

Because people with mild COVID-19 infections don’t necessarily seek out medical care that would result in them being tested, state public health officials have said the state’s official case counts are likely not comprehensive.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, dismissed the GOP letter as an “unfortunate political stunt,” and said he’s confident the governor’s staff is making preparations to re-open the economy. 

“I’m sure there’s a plan being worked on — it’s just not time to pull the trigger as we continue to see casualties and new cases popping up around the state,” Schreiner said.

Schreiner has been selected as running mate by Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, one of two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to replace Bullock as governor. Sales, the senate president, is seeking the GOP nomination for secretary of state.

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.