Gov. Greg Gianforte leaned into Chamber of Commerce-style conservatism as he delivered his second State of the State address Wednesday evening, emphasizing his efforts on tax cuts and deregulation while giving red-meat social issues comparatively glancing mention.

Looking ahead, Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years pledged to continue down that track, dispersing the state’s $2-plus billion budget surplus in the form of further tax cuts, rebates and debt pay-offs. 

Gianforte stressed his commitment to fighting abortion and ensuring parental oversight in education, but otherwise avoided mentioning any of the other divisive issues that represent priorities for many hardline Republican legislators, leaving debates over LGBTQ rights, drag performances, critical race theory and election integrity unmentioned.

Speaking before a House chamber crowded with lawmakers from both parties, a smattering of state officials, spouses and other guests, Gianforte painted an image of a state economy that was sputtering before he came into office to slice taxes and government regulations in 2020. Under his leadership, he said, the state government is no longer just that — it’s also a business, and its citizens are both its customers and bosses. 

“Montanans have spoken loud and clear: They want a government that works for them. Not the other way around,” he said.

His proclamations generated cheers from Republican legislators but a generally muted response from super-minority party Democrats, who at times stayed seated and withheld applause even as the majority caucus stood in ovation. Nonetheless, Gianforte dispersed a few kudos toward minority-party lawmakers carrying his bills, and ended his nearly 12-page speech on a conciliatory note. 

“Let’s remember that there’s much, much more that brings us together than separates us. Let’s continue finding common ground and delivering results for the people of Montana. That’s what they sent us here to do.”

People in the gallery of the state House chamber applaud with legislators during Gov. Greg Gianforte’s State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Sam Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

In that spirit, lawmakers from both parties were playing State of the State bingo during the speech. Squares on the bingo cards — there were multiple versions distributed — included “Debt Free in ’23,” “Biden,” “adoption” and “tipsy legislator.” 

Among the Democratic lawmakers to receive a shoutout from the governor was Missoula Sen. Shannon O’Brien, who delivered the minority party’s formal rebuttal to his speech shortly after he concluded.

O’Brien painted Gianforte and his policy prescriptions as out of touch with the needs of working Montanans and insufficient to address the challenges the state is facing, namely affordability.

“Tonight, the governor provided no real solution to ease the tax burden on everyday Montanans,” O’Brien said. “Instead, quite honestly, he used the tired old Republican playbook of giving our wealthiest a very, very generous tax break.”

O’Brien also criticized the Republican caucus as a whole for advancing divisive social issue legislation while ignoring the economic needs of Montana’s neediest.

“Sometimes, for some of them, I wonder, have they forgotten the basic value of love thy neighbor as thyself?” she said.

TAX CUTS

Gianforte said his proposed two-year state budget, which contains both one-time property tax rebates and sizable permanent income tax cuts, among other measures, amounts to “the largest tax cut in state history.” Returning money to taxpayers and limiting future collections, he said, will help families who are struggling with rising costs of consumer goods and boost the Montana economy by making the state a more competitive place to do business.

Gianforte emphasized several specific tax measures:

  • His proposed income tax cuts, which would reduce the state’s top-bracket rate from 6.5% to 5.9%.
  • An increase to the state’s earned income tax credit, which supplements a federal credit that shifts tax burden away from working families.
  • Raising the exemption threshold for the state business equipment tax from $300,000 to $1 million.

“Our plan provides relief to Montana taxpayers at every income level, because even after our historic tax cuts in 2021, we still have the highest income tax rate in the Rocky Mountain West and one of the highest in the nation,” Gianforte said. (Unlike Montana, most other states in the U.S. fund their government in part with a statewide sales tax.)

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY 

Gianforte praised the efforts of the housing task force he convened last summer, but didn’t specify any pending legislation implementing the group’s suggestion that the state try to make home construction easier and cheaper by reining in municipal zoning powers.

  • Gianforte cited his Home Ownership Means Economic Security, or HOMES, proposal, which would put $200 million in a fund to help build water and sewer lines to serve new housing developments.
  • He said the state Department of Environmental Quality had caught up on a backlog of subdivision review permits it faced as he took office, allowing developers and builders to move ahead with proposed construction more quickly.

COST OF LIVING FOR FAMILIES

Gov. Greg Gianforte waves while concluding his State of the State address in the state House chamber on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Sam Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Gianforte emphasized several budget proposals intended to provide help for families:

  • A child tax credit of up to $1,200 per child under 6, intended to help families cover the cost of child care and other expenses.
  • An $5,000 adoption tax credit, which would increase to $7,500 for families that adopt kids from Montana’s foster care system.

HEALTH CARE

Gianforte highlighted what he called a “generational investment in our behavioral health facilities,” including the troubled state hospital in Warm Springs.

“We’ll repair the state hospital in Warm Springs,” he said, blaming previous administrations for “kicking the can down the road.”

The governor also highlighted his HEART Fund, an effort that purports to fund “a full continuum of substance abuse and treatment programs” in communities across the state.

ABORTION

“All life is precious and must be protected,” Gianforte said to widespread applause by Republican attendees — and notable stoicism from Democrats.

He touted abortion restrictions enacted in the 2021 Legislature, though he noted that several are tied up in the courts. The 2021 bills include a ban on abortion after 20 weeks gestational age. 

Gianforte said his commitment to the issue “will never waiver,” though he didn’t specifically call out any new anti-abortion measures this session. (Republican legislators have advanced several anti-abortion proposals this session.)

NATURAL RESOURCES AND LAND MANAGEMENT

Gianforte stressed his “active forest management” approach to wildfire mitigation and highlighted the state Land Board’s recent decision to add 5,700 acres to the Big Snowy Wildlife Management Area. That acquisition opens access to more than 100,000 acres of public land and will maintain commercial grazing operations.

“Production ag and conservation are not mutually exclusive,” Gianforte said of the acquisition. “Our state has a vested interest in seeing land conserved for wildlife, while also keeping ranchers on the landscape. They were the first stewards.”

Energy- and climate change-related issues were largely absent from the address, save for a brief mention of a wind farm in eastern Montana that Gianforte credited with creating 300 jobs. Wildlife issues, including legislation seeking to shape state management of grizzlies, wolves, elk and bison, also garnered little space in Gianforte’s remarks.

  • Gianforte noted that his budget includes $10 million annually to expand acreage that’s treated with logging, thinning, prescribed burning or some mix of the three, and highlighted his administration’s work to double the number of acres treated under that management framework in 2021. 
  • In remarks centering “innovative businesses” that have launched in the state, Gianforte lauded the NextEra wind farm in eastern Montana as representative of his “all of the above” energy approach. In a follow-up press release, a spokesperson referenced multinational corporation Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which anticipates creating 20 Montana jobs by tapping into wind generation in Judith Gap. 

EDUCATION

Gianforte spoke at length about Montana’s responsibility to “ensure that our kids receive the best education possible,” urging lawmakers to “protect parental rights” and “empower Montana parents to choose what’s best for their family and their kids.” He also encouraged the state’s K-12 and higher education systems to more fully embrace individualized and alternative pathways to learning, and lauded recent efforts to address one of the most pressing challenges in public education: teacher pay.

Legislators applaud Kylee and Nathan Urie, teachers at Harlem High School and Turner Public School, respectively, after they were commended by Gov. Greg Gianforter during his State of the State address in the state House chamber on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Sam Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Gianforte pointed to Montana’s 2021 Teach Act, which provided financial incentives for schools to increase pay for starting teachers. That effort, he said, has already “helped nearly 500 new teachers begin their career in Montana.” 

  • On the parental rights front, Gianforte called out pending legislation sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, that he said puts parents and students “first in education.” He didn’t specify the bill he was referencing, but Vinton is carrying several pieces of legislation focused on education. Among them is a bill to increase the aggregate limit on tax credits for donations to public schools and private school scholarships, and a bill dubbed the Students with Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act. The latter, a draft of which was posted to the Legislature’s website Wednesday, would direct state funding to a savings account program that would reimburse parents of students with special needs for expenses such as textbooks, tutoring, educational therapies, and enrollment in nonpublic schools or programs.
  • The governor asked legislators to pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, that clearly defines proficiency-based learning in state law. That bill was passed out of the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee unanimously Jan. 24.
  • The governor praised the work of Miles Community College President Ron Slinger in increasing the two-year campus’ student enrollment and expanding its private sector partnerships — partnerships, Gianforte said, that are “transforming how education is delivered.” Gianforte announced earlier this month that he had appointed Slinger to the Board of Public Education, pending Senate confirmation.
  • Gianforte urged K-12 schools to “modernize our way of thinking about education” and explore additional online instruction to meet students’ individual academic needs. “Geographic boundaries are no longer a constraint,” he said, highlighting a bill to “transform the Montana Digital Academy,” an online instructional portal established by the Legislature in 2009.
  • Gianforte also called on lawmakers to double the $200,000 cap on Montana’s Big Sky Scholarship tax credit programs in order to “expand parental choice in K-12 education.”

PUBLIC SAFETY

Blaming fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. from Mexico for worsening drug and addiction problems in Montana communities, Gianforte called on President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to “secure our southern border.”

Gianforte also highlighted several other criminal justice initiatives:

  • A $200 million proposal to “repair and expand” the state prison in Deer Lodge
  • Proposed spending for 16 new highway patrol troopers and criminal investigator positions
  • Proposed state funding for drug treatment courts that have previously been supported by federal dollars
  • A Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons bill sponsored by Democratic lawmaker Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.

Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

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.

Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...