On Tuesday, Montana voters gave the GOP unified control of state government, electing a Republican to the governor’s office for the first time in 16 years, Republican candidates to all statewide offices, and expanding GOP majorities in the state House and Senate.
Even so, while at least one written policy agenda draft has been circulating in Republican circles, the party’s legislative leaders say they’re still working to define the priorities the party will bring to the Capitol when lawmakers meet this winter to craft a budget and debate changes to state law.
“We’re very early in,” said Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, last session’s Speaker Pro Tem, who was re-elected Tuesday. “I think we’ve got a lot of just nuts and bolts to get through before we can really start crafting some hard policy stuff in which direction we want to go to in this first session.”
According to uncertified vote counts from the Montana Secretary of State’s office, Republicans picked up nine legislative seats in the Montana House and one in the Montana Senate — enough to expand their majorities to 67 of 100 House seats and 31 of 50 Senate seats. Going into the 2021 session, the Republican majority in the House will be sufficient to override a governor’s veto or to pass measures that require a two-thirds majority without winning Democratic votes.
Democrats, for their part, didn’t win a single Republican-held legislative seat this election cycle.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said Republicans should be cautious about too aggressively pushing some legislation. He said Republicans have a chance to address priorities, like restricting abortion, expanding gun rights, reducing or simplifying environmental and business regulations and lowering taxes, that have languished under Democratic governors since 2005. But he said Republicans need to be diligent in pursuing those policies so they “stick and become part of our culture.”
“While the opportunities are extraordinarily abundant, it’s also time to be very cautious,” he said. “As policymakers, legislators, governor, etcetera, in Montana, I think we will.”
Legislative leaders told Montana Free Press the first priority the Legislature and governor need to address is the state’s budget.
Thomas said he doesn’t expect the two-year state budget the Legislature will approve in 2021 to include drastic cuts, but he said it will likely include smaller cuts for most areas of state government.
Top priorities spelled out in that document include reducing property and income taxes and passing a budget bill with “zero net gain.” Its drafters also want the Legislature to focus on law-and-order measures like a “war on meth” and drug treatment courts, as well as scaling back the power of the governor and local health boards to implement emergency public health measures.
“There’s got to be an economization on everybody under the budget,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to have a little bit of a trim here to make this budget … and a trim could mean no inflationary adjustment.”
They’ll also likely try to place limits on the emergency powers of the governor, leaders said, pointing to a coronavirus pandemic response under Bullock they claimed was excessive.
For example, House Majority Leader Brad Tschida said the Legislature could still allow the governor to use emergency powers unilaterally, but with a limit of 30 days before having to agree on how to respond to emergencies with a bipartisan legislative committee. He also said lawmakers could try to enact legislation requiring that county health officers be overseen by a governing board composed of elected officials.
“We need to put in some safeguards that will prevent one single person from exercising almost unlimited and omnipotent powers,” Tschida said.
For Democrats, unified Republican control means the possibility that measures they consider key legislative achievements — the expanded Medicaid program that was implemented with support from Democrats and some Republicans, for example — could be eroded or overturned entirely.
In an emailed statement, Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said Democrats will look for opportunities to work with Republicans to defend the Medicaid expansion program and support efforts to invest in public education and infrastructure.
“We know that the stated agenda of Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators threatens workers’ rights, women’s access to reproductive health care, and funding for critical infrastructure investments that Montana’s economy depends on,” said Abbot, who served as Minority Whip in the 2019 legislative session.
Even before Tuesday’s election, some Republican representatives from the party’s right flank circulated a draft legislative agenda outlining possible priorities for the 2021 session. Many of those goals centered on legislation that had been vetoed under Democratic governors.
The seven-page draft agenda also outlines a number of specific policy priorities, in some cases referencing specific bills that were vetoed by Democratic governors in past legislative sessions. For example, it suggests a new attempt to pass a 2011 bill that sought to exempt faith-based health care sharing ministries from insurance regulations. That bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who wrote that it “raises an array of very serious consumer protection concerns.”
Other priorities suggested by the draft agenda include anti-abortion measures, enacting a tax on renewable energy generation and routing some public education spending to private schools. It suggests combining the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the state Department of Environmental Quality in an effort to reduce duplicative spending.
The draft agenda also calls for tightening Montana’s legislative term limits, eliminating the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, removing the state’s limits on campaign finance contributions, closing party primaries and ending Montana’s policy of allowing Election Day voter registration.
Gianforte’s transition team didn’t make the governor-elect available for an interview Friday, but did provide a statement in response to questions about whether Gianforte supports specific portions of the legislative agenda.
“Gianforte campaigned on his positive vision and his Montana Comeback Plan, and Montana voters gave him a historic mandate to lead our comeback and enact his plan,” spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke wrote in an email. “Greg looks forward to working with lawmakers to advance his agenda for hardworking Montana families.”
Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan, published earlier this summer, outlines his policy priorities as governor. It calls for lowering taxes and cutting back government regulations, but doesn’t include the level of policy detail specified in the draft agenda document.
Galt and other GOP legislative leaders say it’s still too early to say how closely their 2021 priorities might mirror the Gianforte plan’s priorities or the goals outlined in that draft agenda. Galt, who said he wasn’t involved in creating the document, described it as a “starting point.”
“There’s definitely a lot of great ideas in there. But I do feel that you need to have a good group of people get together and have everyone weigh in,” he said.
The direction Republicans take into the 2021 session will likely become clearer after party leadership is selected Nov. 18, he added. Until then, he said, “we’re in that real gray area right now.”
Galt said Gianforte will also have to flesh out his administration and other state agency positions before the party can begin to focus on more specific policy goals.
Regardless, Galt said, he’s looking forward to the opportunity provided by single-party rule to advance Republican priorities.
“I feel great. It’s something that we’ve talked about, wished about, dreamed about,” he said. “I’m just glad that before I’m done with my political career that I get to serve under a Republican governor at least once.”
John S. Adams contributed reporting.
As the number of Montanans hospitalized with COVID-19 reached its highest level since winter this week, Gov. Greg Gianforte said his administration has secured an agreement to make six hospital beds at the Fort Harrison VA medical center available for patients who don’t otherwise qualify for health care through the Veterans Affairs system.
A Yellowstone County District Court judge is considering whether to temporarily block three state laws that add new restrictions to abortions at various stages of pregnancy following Thursday’s oral arguments in the case brought in August by Planned Parenthood of Montana.
Montana’s new vaccine discrimination law got its first legal challenge Wednesday, with health care providers and patients claiming House Bill 702 puts them at risk of violating federal laws and infringing the constitutional rights of employees and patients.