Parties Pick Leaders for Upcoming Montana Session

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Democratic leaders chosen to control a deadlocked Montana House promised Wednesday to govern from the middle, while Republican leaders in the Senate say they will use their advantage in that chamber to put the GOP’s imprint on state spending.

On Wednesday, the parties picked their new leaders for a Legislature that convenes in January — less than two years after their last session collapsed amid a historic stalemate when the former Republican leader cussed out Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The most contentious battles were in the House, which Republicans controlled 50-49 with the help of a Constitution Party legislator. Democrats are now in charge, despite a 50-50 split following last week’s elections, because their party controls the governor’s office.

Former House Speaker Scott Sales of Bozeman was picked by the GOP Wednesday to run their caucus as minority leader.

Rep. Bob Bergren of Havre, selected by Democrats to be House Speaker, said it will be more important than ever to show respect for each other. At the same time, he aims to advance a Democratic agenda by “governing from the middle.”

“We will need to reach out to the moderates on the other side of the aisle and move a progressive agenda forward,” Bergren said. “If they choose to pick a more conservative leader, that’s their choice.”

Sales said Republicans need to look ahead to regain their majority, and continue to advocate — even in a losing effort — limited government, lower taxes and family values.

“The 2010 election begins today,” Sales said.

State government must acknowledge the economy is tightening, he said.

“If there’s extra money in Helena there’s too much money” in state coffers, Sales said.

Sales was challenged for minority leader by Dennis Himmelberger of Billings, who called for greater decorum, civility and respect.

The real center of power for Republicans has shifted to the Senate, which they seized from Democrats in last week’s elections and will rule with a 27-23 majority.

Republicans chose Sen. Bob Story of Park City to be Senate President. Story said Republicans hope to use that majority to put their own imprint on the budget, although they aren’t drawing any lines in the sand.

Story, a legislative veteran of both chambers, said GOP leaders will first look at the budget that Schweitzer proposes later this week before deciding on a course of action.

Story said tax cuts will be a priority for Republicans. He also said the state will have to curtail spending in case the nationwide recession begins to affect state revenue.

Republicans in the Senate feel they have a mandate, even though Democrats prevailed in statewide races from the governor’s office on down, Story said. At the same time, they recognize it will take cooperation to advance any proposals.

“We are looking forward to a bipartisan effort,” he said.

Sen. Carol Williams of Missoula, wife of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, was elected Democratic leader in the Senate and said she thinks many Democratic principles will prevail.

Williams, leading what is being billed as the first all-woman caucus leadership team for Democrats in the Senate, said voters largely endorsed Democratic ideals on Election Day.

“Many will have success at some level,” said Williams.