This is the second part of a two-day series on Gov. Steve Bullock’s agenda and its prospects at the 2015 Montana Legislature, which convenes Jan. 5.
HELENA – Two years into his first term as governor, Democrat Steve Bullock has no shortage of positives he can point to when talking about his record.
Unemployment in Montana is dropping steadily, personal income growth is above the national average, and job growth in the state is on a record pace this year, according to state Labor Department data.
A national report ranked Montana as one of the “fiscally prudent” states in the nation, the Bullock administration is sitting on a $350 million state budget surplus, and a top business-tax group likes the state tax climate.
Bullock, 48, who narrowly won the governor’s seat in 2012 after four years as state attorney general, also enjoyed political successes during his first Legislature as governor in 2013, signing bills to bail out public pensions, increase state-worker pay and revamp and increase school funding.
“I think things are going well in this state, and they’re only going to continue to improve,” he said in a recent interview.
As Bullock gets ready to press his agenda at the 2015 Legislature and perhaps build on his record, he faces a Republican majority whose leaders say he doesn’t deserve much credit for the state’s successes.
“Anyone can hold the helm of a ship when seas are calm,” says incoming Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive. “With what’s taking place in the economy in our state, it would be pretty difficult to run the ship aground.”
Booming oil-and-gas development along the Montana-North Dakota border has boosted the entire state, and Bullock has done little to encourage it, Rosendale and others say.
Yet, in many political corners, Bullock gets relatively high marks for the overall success of the state and his penchant toward compromise rather than confrontation.
“I think our members feel that Steve is going a good job,” says Glenn Oppel, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the state’s main business lobby. “He’s very willing to communicate with us, which is a direct contrast with the previous administration (of Democrat Brian Schweitzer).”
Bullock signed a Chamber-supported bill last year that further lowered property taxes on business equipment, Oppel notes – but vetoed bills that simplified state income taxes and exempted pollution-control equipment from taxation.
The Chamber gave Bullock a 60 percent-rating for supporting its 2013 agenda – about twice the highest level achieved by his Democratic predecessor, Oppel says.
Fellow Democrats privately express some frustration with Bullock, saying he needs to do a better job explaining the good things he’s done for the state and selling the public on what he wants to accomplish further.
Some, however, say that’s not the governor’s style.
“Unlike other governors I’ve known, I don’t think Governor Bullock is a self-promoter, and that is one of the things I like about him,” says House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena. “He’s a modest guy. And I think Montanans like that about him. …
“I don’t know if people know what the governor’s record is.”
Who gets to lay claim to this record, however, is open to question.
Those who worked with Bullock during the 2013 Legislature to enact major bills and the state budget say he enabled the collaboration, but seldom played a leadership role.
“I do believe the Montana economy has fared well, but there were a whole lot of us working to create that record,” says Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “A group of folks kind of worked out a compromise in the middle, and that was not proposed by Democrats. It was proposed by people in the middle. …
“Either folks joined together on that game, or there was no game.”
Jones sponsored the major school-funding bill of 2013 and worked two years beforehand developing its components. Bullock got on board, and Democrats teamed up with moderate Republicans to push the bill through, over the opposition of conservative Republicans.
Those same conservative Republicans control GOP leadership at the 2015 Legislature, and say the Bullock record is one of missed opportunities.
They cite his 2013 veto of a bill to fund sewer and water projects and roads in eastern Montana, to help local governments deal with the impacts of oil development, and say his proposal now to fund those projects rings a bit hollow.
“Our economic growth has not been as good as it could have been, if he had worked on infrastructure improvements in eastern Montana, if he’d been serious about it,” says Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who switches to the House next month.
Incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, also says conservatives in the Legislature are the ones who held the line on the state budget, rather than Bullock, who had proposed higher spending in 2013.
“I think he has shown that his idea of jobs and our idea of jobs are two very different things,” Knudsen says of the governor. “Increased state employment and increased building on college campuses is not the Republican idea of increased private sector jobs.”
The state has added 108 full-time employees since Bullock took office, a less than 1 percent increase.
Bullock mostly shrugs off the criticism, saying it comes with the job – but disputes Knudsen’s assertion that “conservatives” forced lesser spending. The governor notes that he vetoed $150 million in additional spending or tax cuts passed by the Republican Legislature in 2013, to maintain his goal of a $300 million cushion in the final budget.
“We certainly always want to do better, but as far as the criticisms, I guess that’s part of the political game that the average Montanan doesn’t really care about,” he says. “What they want is to make sure we’re doing the right thing, in schools, with job creation, with regulations. So, from that perspective, I think things are going well.”