During a Friday press conference, his first since being elected, Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte offered few hints about what policies he may pursue or support once he’s sworn in on Jan. 4.
While he largely avoided answering direct questions about specific policy proposals and ideas, he did say that responding to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to the deaths of 727 people in the state so far — will be his first priority. He also pledged not to alter public stream access laws or undermine Montana’s Medicaid expansion during the half-hour event, which included remarks from Gianforte and questions from members of the press.
Some Republican lawmakers, encouraged by single-party control of state government, have already highlighted specific priorities — like eliminating the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, routing some public education spending to private schools and merging the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Department of Environmental Quality — in a draft agenda. Other Republican leaders have been more cautious, saying it’s too early to define explicit policy goals before the Legislature begins the session in January.
Gianforte, for his part, said his broad priorities, like lowering taxes and cutting government regulations, have already been laid out in his “Montana Comeback Plan.” He said he will soon have more definitive policy details to share.
“I hate to disappoint you, but it’s just not Christmas yet,” he said. “If you’re looking to speculate, the best hint I can give you is it’s very likely in the Montana Comeback Plan.”
Other questions, like whether state lawmaker Kerry White, who recently shared controversial comments on social media, is still a member of one of his transition advisory teams, went unanswered.
Asked whether he would rescind a statewide mask mandate and other public health orders such as limits on bar and restaurant capacity, Gianforte said he will wait to see recommendations from a task force he’s formed to help guide his response before making a decision.
“I do think the key principles in the policy that we’ll adopt on Jan. 4 has got to focus on keeping the most vulnerable safe,” he said. “This is a serious health crisis. But we also have to get our economy going again. We’re going to have to balance those two things.”
He also said the trendlines of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has infected more than 66,000 Montanans since March, with 1,254 new cases confirmed by the state on Friday — are “alarming.” He encouraged all Montanas to wear a mask, and said he will do so when he’s at the Capitol.
“When I’m in the Capitol, I’m going to be wearing a mask,” Gianforte said. “I encourage other people to do that as well. I think it shows respect and concern.”
Regular press conferences will be a priority of his administration, as will transparency and accountability, he said during the press conference, which was held virtually via Zoom. Gianforte also said he expects to begin announcing state agency leaders in the coming weeks as he and his advisers continue to vet applicants. He’s already chosen some of his top aides, like the state’s former top federal prosecutor as his budget director and a well-known conservative legal advocate as his general counsel.
“I campaigned on a promise of installing change agents to lead our state agencies, and we’re making great progress,” he said. “You can expect some agency head announcements soon.”
In response to a question, Gianforte declined to recognize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in last month’s presidential election, saying that ongoing litigation by President Donald Trump and his supporters challenging the results needs to “come to its conclusion,” and noting that the election isn’t final until Electoral College electors meet later this month to cast their votes.
“I think that we need to let that process play out,” Gianforte said.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland formally executed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact Friday, finalizing a long-running effort to negotiate an agreement that reconciles the tribes’ historic treaty rights with Montana’s modern water rights doctrine.
Hundreds of public-submitted maps have been filed as the state’s Districting and Apportionment Commission gets to work drawing Montana’s new congressional districts.
This week, hospitals from Billings to Missoula are instituting or preparing to institute a “crisis standard of care” under which medical services and supplies are rationed. While case numbers are still slightly lower than they were last winter during the virus’ previous peak, hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID patients.