The governor of Montana works for more than 1 million people, and must be willing to serve each and every one of them – starting by listening to them. He must be open to a diversity of ideas, as well as to general criticism and detailed questioning.
Gov. Steve Bullock, the incumbent Democrat running for a second term, has demonstrated a clear understanding of the governor’s role, and better still, his effectiveness at it. Even before he was elected governor, as attorney general, Bullock showed a deft ability to hear suggestions from a variety of sources, fold them into his proposals and then move his policies forward with bipartisan support.
He also showed a willingness to draw the line when faced with a bad idea, and wield the veto pen accordingly. His leadership in setting financial priorities has helped keep the state’s economy in good shape.
Republican challenger Greg Gianforte has based his campaign on smart business leadership. He has not, however, shown as much interest in public service. He has been unwilling to share with the public his reasoning for making large charitable contributions to groups that advocate for for public spending on private schools, prayer in schools, creationism, federal lands transfer proposals and other social matters. In fact, he has argued that it’s none of the public’s business.
And when challenged to consider opposing sides of issues outside his area of expertise, such refugee resettlement, Gianforte has an unfortunately tendency to shut down discussion. A successful public servant must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations on controversial subjects.
Undoubtedly, Gianforte’s biggest strength is his proven business success. He and his wife started a small software company called RightNow Technologies, based in Bozeman, which grew to employ more than 1,000 people in high-paying jobs, and eventually sold to Oracle Corporation for $1.8 billion. Despite his personal success in Montana, Gianforte maintains that state government hinders business growth and should adopt a “customer service” approach.
Except Montanans aren’t the customers. We’re the bosses.
This mindset is reflected in Bullock’s approach to improving the relationship between state government and local business, namely through the Main Street Montana Project launched more than three years ago. The project’s goal was to identify improvements, industry by industry, and in keeping with Bullock’s collaborative management style, it relies on participation from key business leaders as well as stakeholders from both the public and private sectors.
Hearing that many businesses found government requirements difficult to navigate, Bullock launched a regulatory review that resulting in the streamlining of hundreds of regulations, and earlier this year the Governor’s Office of Economic Development developed the Montana Business Navigator to help guide new businesses through the permitting process. Phase 2, Bullock says, is to involve Montana’s cities and counties in the navigator to make the process easier for businesses to navigate across every level of government.
This inclusive, pragmatic approach found similar success with other issues tackled by the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature, which passed Medicaid expansion and approved a budget without going into overtime. The bipartisan infrastructure bill, notably, failed by just one vote – and Bullock has pledged to make it the “starting issue” of the next legislative session.
He also intends to again take up early childhood education, and continue working to improve rural access to health care while looking for ways to drive down health care costs.
Of course, Bullock’s time in the Governor’s Office has also revealed his flaws. Gianforte has brought up some good points about Bullock’s questionable use of the state plane and series of three lieutenant governors. There have been serious questions about state government under Bullock’s watch that he could have prevented had he run a tighter ship.
The decision to move the state’s criminally convicted mental health patients from an overcrowded facility to a private building with a $1.2. million annual contract should have been made only after other options were exhausted through a competitive bidding process performed out in the open. Similarly, Bullock’s administration has paid more than $900,000 in settlements to at least 42 state employees to settle claims of an unknown nature. To be fair, his administration included these payments in the state’s online checkbook, which Bullock launched in his first year in office. However, his administration has rejected public records requests for details of the settlements.
Bullock also should have at least attempted to intervene in a major tourism contract awarded, through a competitive bidding process, to a firm based in Wisconsin.
In the future, we would like to see Bullock deepen his commitment to transparency and pay closer attention to the details – such as developing a policy on the use of the state plane.
But those are minor dings against an overall strong performance. Montanans should re-hire Steve Bullock as Montana’s governor.