Montana Republicans will hit the ground running next week when the 2015 Legislature convenes in Helena, and while they agree with the state's Democratic governor on several points, the similarities quickly diverge.
Incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, touched on his party’s goals for the session during a meeting with the Missoulian's editorial board Monday.
Helping communities impacted by the oil boom in eastern Montana topped his list, along with funding charter schools and extending tax relief to working Montanans.
“Depending on whose estimates you’re using, we’re looking at a budget surplus of over $350 million,” Knudsen said. “That’s not money the state made. It didn’t come from our investments. That came from the taxpayers.”
Knudsen said his caucus would like to see income taxes lowered in place of a one-time tax rebate, such as the $400 refund given to taxpayers in 2007. Knudsen called such refunds a gimmick that do little to stimulate the economy over time.
Looking for long-term economic gain, Knudsen said his caucus will also seek to expand resource extraction across the state. Oil and gas development in eastern Montana is creating new jobs and new wealth, he said, and coal and timber could do the same for other regions.
“Creating long-term new wealth has got to come from the ground up,” he said. “We know how to do that in Montana, and we have the resources to do it. We’ve got to get some of the agencies out of the way, pull them back a little bit, and speed up the permitting process.”
Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget includes roughly $307 million to improve the state’s aging infrastructure, including $45 million for eastern Montana oil-boom towns. Knudsen said his caucus also looks to invest in infrastructure, but wants more money for eastern Montana.
Knudsen, who grew up in eastern Montana and will begin his third legislative session, said the city of Sidney could spend $50 million a year on projects it has already initiated. Overall, he said, eastern Montana communities are seeking $90 million to keep pace with growth driven by the Bakken boom.
“We have to talk infrastructure in eastern Montana,” Knudsen said. “The oil field has done amazing things for the state, but it’s also done amazing things to the communities of eastern Montana that don’t have the revenue stream to keep up with the impacts.”
Bullock is proposing a blend of cash and bonds to tackle infrastructure projects across the state. With interest rates low and the state in strong fiscal standing, the governor believes now is a good time to borrow money.
But Knudsen said borrowing is going to be a tough sell for his party. He’d like to pay for the projects with cash, and while he’s looking to fund the needs in eastern Montana, he doesn’t believe the issue should pit east versus west.
“I think most legislators know what’s going on out there now, and I don’t think that divide is an issue any more,” he said. “But when it comes time to actually appropriate the money, it might be a different story. It might be hard for a legislator from Missoula to spend money in Sidney when they’d like to see some spending out here as well.”
Knudsen said his caucus also differs with the governor on issues of education and health care. Bullock is proposing a freeze on college tuition, but Knudsen isn’t sure where the money will come from.
Bullock also looks to invest $37 million in voluntary early childhood education programs. Knudsen said he and his caucus don’t support the proposal, saying children don’t benefit over time.
“I find very low support in the Republican caucus, and that cuts across conservative and moderate lines,” he said. “I don’t see it being worth the investment. You’re not getting a better product in the end. This is one of the governor’s agenda items that I don’t see going anywhere.”
Bullock also wants to expand Medicaid coverage to roughly 70,000 Montanans. Knudsen said a GOP committee has been studying its own plan, one it will unveil in the coming days.
“From 30,000 feet, Medicaid expansion is going to be a tough sell for the caucus and a tough sell for me personally,” he said. “Able-bodied people should be able to go out and get a job.”
Knudsen said his party also worries about the cost of expanding Medicaid. While money would come from the federal government initially, he said, the state could be left with the bill down the road.
“It would be a huge part of our state budget, and the question becomes, what do we cut to pay for that?” he said. “We’re not looking at going to the session and saying no. We do recognize there are coverage gaps in the state and we want to help cover those.”
Knudsen said his caucus may not support a local option sales tax, one Missoula Mayor John Engen – along with other city mayors – would like to see enacted.
Knudsen said taking back federal land in Montana also deserves a robust discussion. Opening federal forests to timber and mining could do for western Montana what the oil boom has done for the east, he said.
“Montana does a better job protecting and stewarding its resources than the federal government does," he said. "It would be a discussion worth having how many resources that would open up to Montana to develop on its own property if that land wasn’t federally owned.”