HELENA – As Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock eyes his second Legislature, which begins next week, he knows he’ll need some Republican help to move any part of his agenda through the GOP-controlled body.
“Certainly with a Legislature that is almost two-thirds Republican, I want to find common ground with folks who can move things forward,” he said in a recent interview. “Let’s actually focus not on the politics, and get some stuff done.”
Yet this time around, GOP leadership at the Legislature seems more determined than ever to plot a different path, saying Montana voters want a more conservative course.
They say it’s time for the governor to “modify” his agenda and accept goals sought by most Republicans, like tax relief and cutting regulations, to boost private-sector employment and natural resource development.
“Our agenda is going to be one that is focused on growing the economy,” says incoming Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive. “At the end of the day, the governor’s agenda is going to be focused on growing the government. That is going to be the biggest difference between the two.”
Bullock’s proposed budget increases state general fund spending by $400 million, or 8 percent, over two years, and also has big increases in federal spending on programs like Medicaid.
Bullock wants to expand Medicaid, providing government health coverage for 70,000 low-income Montanans; create new state funding for preschool; authorize and fund nearly $400 million in building and infrastructure projects; and spend more money on expanded mental health programs.
He argues that this spending, made possible by a healthy budget surplus, will help a growing economy get stronger, by investing in infrastructure and people.
“These are areas that not only are common sense, but have a great deal of support across the state,” Bullock says. “I’m excited to work with the Legislature (on them).”
Bullock is hoping for a repeat of 2013, when a handful of Republicans chose to ignore their harder-line leaders and work with him and legislative Democrats to pass a state budget and major legislation on school funding, public-pension reform and other items.
At the 2015 Legislature, the state Senate clearly has a crop of moderate Republicans willing to deal with Bullock on some issues.
But in the House, Republican leaders are building a conservative bulwark bent on slowing or stopping the governor’s agenda.
Key House committees are constructed to bottle up proposals like Medicaid expansion and state-funded preschool, and leadership is proposing a rule change allowing House Speaker Austin Knudsen to bury any bill in the House Appropriations Committee, unless a supermajority of 60 members stops him (see related story).
House Majority Leader Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, says if Montana voters wanted expanded Medicaid or preschool, they would have elected Democrats to the Legislature – and they didn’t.
“It appears that the voters of Montana are supporting (our agenda),” he says. “I would like to have talks with the governor and work on things that the people of Montana want.”
Those “wants,” according to Republican legislative leaders, are tax relief, restraint on government spending and debt, cutting regulations, and encouraging charter schools and private schools.
The 2015 Legislature also marks the unofficial beginning of the 2016 campaign, when Bullock is up for re-election. Many Republican lawmakers won’t be inclined to help the Democratic governor bolster his image, instead hoping to paint him as ineffective or standing in the way of conservative priorities.
The GOP legislative caucus, however, is not a monolith, with some saying they need to work with Bullock if they hope to accomplish anything.
“Republicans are very individualistic people,” says Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, a leader of the Republican moderates. “I try to do the right thing, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, and I think there are a bunch of us that follow that rule.”
Still, Jones says he senses scant support for the governor’s preschool program, and that Medicaid expansion won’t pass the Legislature, if at all, without some major compromises and changes.
Jones also notes that most Republicans feel strongly that when the state has a big budget surplus – as it does now – some tax relief is in order, targeted at stimulating the economy.
On this point, Bullock’s agenda is largely bare. He’s proposing no broad-based tax cuts and says he’s not convinced they’re needed.
With the state budget in sound financial condition, it’s a great opportunity to invest in things like education and basic infrastructure, to lay the groundwork for more economic expansion, Bullock says.
“I don’t view this as a time to gut our tax system, by any measure,” he says. “This ought to be a session where we look at some investments that go long beyond this biennium, or a governor’s or legislator’s tenure.”
Whether Bullock can win the political day will depend on his skill in negotiating with the Legislature – and winning over the public, through whatever bully pulpit he can muster, supporters and foes alike say.
Most observers also say they expect the governor’s infrastructure package to be a linchpin in whatever negotiating takes place.
With $400 million in projects across the state, and eastern Montana in dire need of sewer-and-water projects to help it handle an influx of oilfield workers, it’s an area where Republicans want something for their constituents and should be willing to deal, says Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula.
“They’re going to have some wants out there, and I think the wants are probably going to be in brick and mortar,” he says.
Jones and others also say that Bullock, unlike his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, is a compromiser who will listen to the other side and at least try to accommodate them.
“He could have crossed his arms and stood in the corner (in 2013) and said, 'My way or the highway,’ and the ensuing result would have been chaos,” Jones says. “To his credit, he said, ‘This isn’t exactly what I wanted, but I can shift, too.’ ”
Other Republicans, however, are less charitable.
Art Wittich, who left his Senate seat this year to win a House seat because he thinks the House is better suited to blocking Bullock’s agenda, says the governor simply wants to “peel off a couple of disaffected Republicans” to undermine the Republican majority.
“That’s a bad approach,” he says. “He should be dealing with a majority of the (Republican) majority to have truly bipartisan solutions. He’s not a very good negotiator.”
Regardless of Bullock’s negotiating skills, his supporters say the governor’s approach of looking for some middle ground aligns with the majority of the public’s hopes that Democrats and Republicans will work together to tackle the state’s problems, rather than battle it out for political points.
“Voters want the government to do good things for Montana,” says House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena. “This place functions best where compromise is possible.”
For his part, Bullock remains upbeat, and says he has faith the public wants to make sound investments in health, education and infrastructure that will aid everyone.
“There is a long way to go between now and the end of April,” he says. “So I’m hopeful that ultimately the Legislature will listen to their constituents and their interests, rather than just sort of falling back on dogma.”
Coming Monday: A closer look at Bullock’s record.