Credit: Thom Bridge / Independent Record; may not be republished without permission

HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte was sworn in Monday as Montana’s 25th governor, bringing the state Capitol under unified GOP control and putting a Republican at the helm of state government for the first time since 2005.

Gianforte, a former tech entrepreneur who built a billion-dollar business in Bozeman before entering politics, pledged in his inaugural address to focus on bolstering economic opportunity while helping the state recover from the COVID-19 crisis. He stressed longtime Republican priorities of streamlining business regulations and reducing taxes by reining in what he called “out of control” state spending.

He also expressed a desire to rise above partisan politics, striking conciliatory notes and stressing the value of the state education system and Montana’s public lands — institutions Democrats have worried could be harmed by a Republican-dominated state government.

“I passionately believe that more unites us than separates us as Montanans,” Gianforte said. “I’m ready to work with anyone, Democrat, Republican, or independent, who has a good idea.”

Gianforte also said he wants to make state agencies more responsive to the public, providing citizens with “better customer service.” He additionally said he will prioritize public safety and drug addiction recovery programs.

“We must protect the way of life enshrined in our Constitution,” Gianforte said. “Ultimately, we must do these things to protect our way of life for the next generation of Montanans.”

Those themes largely echo the pitch Gianforte made to voters during the 2020 election, when he framed his campaign rhetoric around a “Montana Comeback Plan” he said would help the state economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and what he’s called economic mismanagement under a decade and a half of Democratic governors.

Gianforte’s address didn’t explicitly mention Second Amendment issues, identified as a priority on his campaign website, or abortion restrictions, a major Republican policy priority, that have historically run into vetos from Democratic governors

The last Republican to serve as Montana governor was Judy Martz, who held the executive office for a single four-year term from 2001 to 2005. Democratic governors Brian Schweitzer and Steve Bullock served two terms each, from 2005 to 2013 and from 2013 to this year, respectively.

As the state’s chief executive, governors appoint state agency heads and are ultimately responsible for state government’s day-to-day administration. The governor also has veto power over laws passed by the Montana Legislature and produces draft budgets that serve as templates for the legislative appropriation process.

Four other Republicans who won election to statewide offices in 2020 were also sworn in Monday: Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, second-term Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and State Auditor Troy Downing.

Gianforte, who promised on the campaign trail to appoint a clean slate of directors to head state agencies, has named eight cabinet-level appointments as of Jan. 4.

He also announced names, titles and salaries for 20 positions within the governor’s office Dec. 31:

  1. Kurt Alme, budget director: $130,000
  2. Anita Milanovich, general counsel: $120,000
  3. Christine Heggem, chief of staff: $128,000
  4. Mike Milburn, senior advisor: $113,000
  5. Travis Hall, senior advisor and director of strategic communications: $110,000
  6. Glenn Oppel, policy director: $105,000
  7. Mike Freeman, natural resources policy advisor: $95,000
  8. Rachel Meredith, counsel: $95,000
  9. Karli Hill, director of engagement: $87,000
  10. Liane Taylor, boards & nominations: $80,000
  11. Charlie Brereton, health care policy advisor: $78,000
  12. Brooke Stroyke, press secretary: $66,000
  13. Garrett Turner, director of media and content: $60,000
  14. Tory Scribner, scheduler: $45,000
  15. Brett Simons, economic development specialist: $44,000
  16. Sonny Capece, economic development specialist: $42,000
  17. Hannah Slusser, executive assistant to the lieutenant governor and chief of staff: $40,000
  18. Will Emery, research/press assistant: $40,000
  19. Elizabeth Klinker, constituent services: $33,000
  20. Celia Rigler, staff assistant: $27,000

The salaries paid to Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras are $118,397 and $90,140, respectively.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.