HELENA – In what is believed to be unprecedented, the top two leaders of the Montana Senate in 2013 are moving over to the state House in January, where each will play key roles as committee chairmen.
Switching to the House in 2015 are current Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman.
Term limits prevented Essmann from seeking another term in the Senate.
Wittich said he decided to run for the House because his Senate district was “radically changed" during the once-a-decade legislative redistricting process.
“I thought I could be more effective in the House than in the Senate, advancing freedom policies,” Wittich said.
Essmann and Wittich, both attorneys, won’t start out as typical freshmen representatives when they are sworn in Jan. 5.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, appointed Essmann as head of both the House State Administration and Rules committees, while Wittich will chair the House Human Services Committee.
It’s rare for freshmen to head committees. Their appointments as chairmen raised eyebrows among some House Republican moderates and the Democratic minority leader.
“I’m a little surprised, I have to say, at how prominent they are in the Republican structure already,” said House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena. “It just seems like leadership has paid a lot of deference to them as they came over.”
Hunter said he’s also expressed concern about how “particularly rancorous and bitter” the Senate was under Essmann and Wittich’s leadership in 2013. Senate Republicans were bitterly divided.
“It was not good for the Senate,” Hunter said. “I hope we don’t see that in the House.”
Knudsen makes no apologies for tapping Essmann and Wittich for chairmanships.
“With term limits, I think it’s silly to ignore people’s experience,” Knudsen said. “It would be silly to just bench them. Both are experienced legislators who have experience in leadership, and it would be silly to treat them as freshmen legislators without experience.”
Knudsen added, “Art’s been involved in Medicaid (legislation). Jeff’s the former Senate president and he’s the dean of the House. He’s been in the Legislature literally longer than anyone (in the House).”
Essmann said he told all of the candidates for House speaker “to put me where you need me.”
“I appreciate his confidence,” Essmann said of Knudsen. “I’m here to serve my constituents in the Montana House. I did not come over here to step on anybody. I’m pleased to chair State Administration.”
Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, had raised the issue of the role of Essmann and Wittich when he ran and lost to Knudsen for speaker in the House GOP caucus last month.
Fitzpatrick had said he would show no special favoritism toward the former Senate leaders coming into the House, without mentioning them by name.
“I basically said something to the effect they would be treated like freshmen,” Fitzpatrick said. “They were freshmen in the House and would be treated like freshmen.”
Wittich last week called Fitzpatrick’s comments “odd and unpersuasive.”
“Some members of the caucus want us to earn our stripes,” Wittich said. “Clearly, we have experience, and I think we can contribute from day one, and I think most people recognize it.”
The Bozeman legislator said he was pleased to be appointed to head the House Human Services Committee after serving on the Senate Public Health Committee in 2013.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance for 70,000 more Montanans likely will be assigned to Wittich’s committee.
Wittich called for reforming Medicaid first before addressing the health care gap.
“Should the state expand welfare to include childless, able-bodied adults?” he asked. “That’s 80 percent of the 70,000. Is this simply welfare expansion? Are we expanding to more people and creating more incentives not to work?”
Term limits prevented Essmann from running for another term in the Senate, where he was president in 2013 and majority leader in 2011.
“I served in leadership my last two sessions,” Essmann said. “Your job necessarily turns more to management in those roles. I enjoyed carrying legislation (previously) and had constituents interested in pursuing legislation. I’m looking forward to it again.”
In the House, Essmann will be chairman of the State Administration Committee, which, among other duties, will hear legislation on election and campaign finance laws and public pensions.
Essmann said he has requested a bill concerning the commissioner of political practices office, but is waiting to see what other legislators bring forward before he completes his.
He has called current Commissioner Jonathan Motl a “Democratic partisan” and endorsed the idea of establishing a bipartisan review committee to decide which cases the commissioner will prosecute. Sen.-elect Doug Kary, R-Billings, has a bill to do that, Essmann said.
Half the 20 members on the State Administration Committee chaired by Essmann will be freshmen.
“I will have an opportunity to teach them to focus on a bill and the policy of a bill, not on the personalities of people,” said Essmann, who has chaired other committees, including Senate Taxation in 2009.
Serving on a committee is not a place to make speeches, but to ask questions, he said.
“I’m hoping to maintain a low profile,” Essmann said.