When Democrat Steve Bullock is sworn into the governor’s office in January, Montana will officially have a new chief executive for the first time in eight years. He will immediately be greeted with a host of major issues, along with a Republican-controlled Legislature ready to put his leadership skills to the test.
During recent legislative sessions, Republicans have expressed frustration with Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s often polarizing persona. And just like during the last session, the GOP will have majorities in both the House and Senate, setting up ample opportunities for potential conflict with a Democratic governor wielding the veto pen.
Yet Bullock, 46, has already expressed a desire to foster a more cooperative atmosphere, and Republican leaders are anticipating that he will follow through with his promises. Whereas Schweitzer has often seemed to take pleasure in publicly ridiculing legislators and bills that he deems absurd, University of Montana political science professor Jim Lopach believes Bullock has an inherently different personality, saying his work as an attorney lends itself to pragmatism over ideology.
“I think Steve Bullock’s personality will not get in the way of policy successes as much as Brian Schweitzer’s got in the way,” Lopach said last week. “I think he understands compromise and realizes that to get things done practically you have to compromise.”
In an interview earlier this week, Bullock said he’s eager to work with both Democrats and Republicans to identify a “common core of principles” and move the state forward through cooperation. He cited his work with both sides of the aisle on combating prescription drug abuse and other issues as attorney general. During the last session, Kalispell Republican Rep. Steve Lavin carried a bill for Bullock to establish the state’s 24/7 sobriety program that cracks down on repeat drunken driving offenders.
“As attorney general, I have a history of getting things done and working with a Republican-controlled Legislature,” he said.
Schweitzer, who is term-limited after eight years, has surely earned his reputation in some circles as being polarizing, but in other circles he is admired. He has consistently been one of the nation’s most popular governors in surveys and many Democrats feel he needed to be bold with his opposition to Republicans, including a record 79 vetoes during the last Legislature.
Schweitzer, an enthusiastic Bullock supporter, has said that many of the bills he vetoed were “bat-crap crazy” and bad for Montana. Bullock says he won’t be afraid to use the veto pen if he feels it’s necessary.
“If it’s bills that have nothing to do with (moving our economy forward) or that are not in our state’s best long-term interests, I won’t be hesitant to exercise my veto power,” the governor-elect said.
Helena Republican Sen. Dave Lewis, who served as budget director under both Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden and Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, says Schwinden’s relationship with Republicans was “very, very good.”
“That’s kind of the way it historically was – we worked it out,” Lewis said last week. “We got away from that the last few years.”
“I think Steve is a little different – at least we can talk,” he added. “That would be a step forward. I hope we can find some middle ground.”
Nevertheless, Lewis acknowledges that some of his highest-priority bills are likely destined for Bullock’s veto pen, if they make it that far. Bullock has expressed opposition to “school choice” proposals, such as tax credits for people who contribute to private school scholarships. Lewis thinks he would have had a good chance to pass some of those measures under a Republican governor. Bullock narrowly defeated Republican Rick Hill 48.7 percent to 47.4 percent in the Nov. 6 general election.
“Now it’s going to be a lot more difficult with a Democratic governor,” Lewis said, adding that he may have to put those issues “on the ballot as a referendum and take them to the people.”
Lopach says having different parties in control of different branches of the government often results in better legislation.
“I certainly believe in the wisdom of the separation of powers and checks and balances system,” Lopach said. “When it works right, I think it leads to common-sense, middle-of-the-road solutions.”
Bullock has never been a legislator, so he has no voting record, but his work as attorney general and his campaign priorities give insight into his policy positions. He has staked out bedrock Democratic ground in his support of a woman’s right to have an abortion, union rights and strengthening the public education system while opposing “school choice” efforts. He also supports a two-year tuition freeze for college students and is a staunch advocate of access to public lands, rivers and streams.
He has proposed a $400 tax rebate for Montana homeowners and eliminating the business equipment tax on companies of a certain size, which he says will apply to more than 10,000 businesses.
As attorney general, Bullock fought to uphold Montana’s campaign finance laws, arguing that contribution limits and restrictions against corporate money are vital for maintaining the integrity of elections.
The work has already begun for Bullock. Last week he and his lieutenant governor-elect John Walsh announced the formation of their “transition” team. Walsh is a retired adjutant general and commander of the Montana National Guard. The transition team’s website, www.gov.elect.mt.gov, will post updates about appointments and other news. Bullock will also be expected to have a budget prepared to present to the Legislature and meet with legislators before the session begins.
Among the pressing issues facing Bullock and the upcoming Legislature are the state’s large pension shortfall, figuring out a plan to utilize the expected budget surplus, property tax relief and Medicaid expansion.
Kalispell Republican Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, last session’s Senate President Pro Tem and as of last week a frontrunner for majority leader this session, hopes for a “better relationship” with the governor as the Legislature tackles those issues. Tutvedt worked with Bullock’s office on drafting legislation aimed at cutting down on “doctor shopping” and prescription drug abuse.
Tutvedt said the “time is ripe” for finding a solution to the pension shortfall, projected to exceed $3 billion over the next 30 years.
“We think it can be done with cooperation and leadership from both sides,” Tutvedt said.
But Tutvedt also acknowledges that the two sides will be heading into some negotiations with far different ambitions and plans, including the Republicans’ desire for “permanent property tax relief” as opposed to Bullock’s proposed $400 one-time rebate to property owners.
“He won the election on his vision and we won it on ours,” Tutvedt said. “We’ll have to meld those two together.”
Bullock said he’s ready to get to work.
“I’m excited to try to get on with this next chapter and I’m energized,” he said.
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