HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock spent much of Wednesday on the phone congratulating both Democrats and Republicans who won legislative races and saying he hopes they again can find common ground on some key issues.
“I’m saying I think there’s a lot of good work to be done, and I look forward to working with them and seeing them soon,” he said in an interview Thursday afternoon before heading off on a hunting trip.
The Democratic governor again will be dealing with a Legislature in which Republicans control both chambers. As it stands, Republicans will have a 29-21 majority in the Senate, while Democrats picked up two seats in the House, leaving Republicans with a 59-41 advantage.
In 2013, Bullock was able to work with a coalition of Democrats and self-described “responsible Republicans” to pass some major bills, and he’s confident they can work together again, regardless of party.
“I think that’s what Montanans expect, and I’m certainly going into the session with the hope that we’ll say moving our state forward is more important than party lines and partisanship,” Bullock said. “I would say the same thing if there were majorities in both houses with Democrats.”
Bullock said he’s looking for the best from all elected officials and believes they will feel likewise.
“I think the public expects more than a continuation of partisanship and partisan games because the elections are over,” he said.
He added: “Most Montanans want a good job, a safe community, good schools and a belief that their kids can do even better than they can, among other things. That’s what most Montanans hope for out of their government. I enter into the session truly believing that.”
As for common ground in 2013, Bullock cited successful attempts in putting more money into education, fixing public pension systems, freezing college tuition for Montana students and leaving $300 million in the bank.
A top priority remains to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance for 70,000 more Montanans by the state accepting federal dollars. Bullock said his administration has been working with stakeholders on a bill and will release it before the Legislature convenes in January.
He also wants to pass a law to provide more transparency and shine the light on the dark money in Montana’s politics. A 2013 effort by Bullock and then-Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, failed.
Referring to Medicaid expansion and campaign finance reform, Bullock said, “I’m certainly hopeful whoever is elected, leadership will make sure in those and other areas there’s the opportunity for yes-and-no votes.”
Other top priorities are putting additional money and services to address mental health needs in Montana, approving a bond issuance to fund infrastructure needs in oil and gas counties in eastern Montana and in other areas, and his Early Edge program to provide public funds for preschool education.
While Bullock has announced details on some of these proposals, he will do so on others on Nov. 17, when he makes public his proposed budget for the next two years. It goes to the Legislature for consideration.
Bullock said he couldn’t say yet if he will again propose to freeze tuition for Montana students at state colleges and universities or propose giving a $400 tax rebate to each Montana homeowner.
“We’re still putting together all of the pieces of our budget, including the possibility of a tuition freeze,” he said.
But Bullock emphasized he wants the budget to be balanced on both the first and last days of the legislative session, while leaving enough money in the bank as a surplus for the state to maintain its fiscal strength.
Bullock is nearly halfway through his four-year term, a time when some governors have made changes in their Cabinets and key staff.
The governor said he won’t be making any big shakeups, but said there may be “some new faces in areas.”
“I’m real happy with the work that my Cabinet and my staff has been doing,” Bullock said. “I think they’ve been waking up each day trying to figure how to work best on behalf of Montanans.”