Change in Leadership

By Beacon Staff

While incoming Republican lawmakers and Democratic governor-elect Steve Bullock have expressed optimism that they can work together this upcoming session, the recent election of new GOP leaders in the Senate may make compromise more elusive. And that could make the 2013 session look a lot like 2011, which many people would like to forget.

Earlier this month, Republicans ousted current Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo and chose Billings’ Jeff Essmann to replace him. Kalispell Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, the former president pro tempore who appeared to have the inside track for majority leader, was passed over for Bozeman’s Art Wittich.

Following the vote, one GOP lawmaker said his party needed to “sharpen” the differences with Democrats and “be much more clear about what we stand for as Republicans.” And while I have never quite understood the argument that Tutvedt is anything but conservative, his colleagues apparently disagree.

Tutvedt’s loss also sets up an interesting dynamic. Wittich’s law firm represents American Tradition Partnership, which hammered Tutvedt with attack mailers during his Republican primary.

Along with ATP, the barrage from the right included criticism from the Montana Family Foundation and a group called Taxpayers for Liberty. Collectively, they accused Tutvedt of backing Obamacare and stifling business. One flier read that he supported teaching kindergarteners sexual education.

Tutvedt called the attacks “absolute lies.” At the very least, they stretched the truth to an uncomfortable degree. Thus, it’s unsurprising that the senator has vowed to introduce legislation this session going after “dark money,” which, in turn, will be going after a group that Wittich’s firm represents.

Essmann and Wittich were each chosen to their new posts by a single vote. And each has said he looks forward to working with a new governor. Bullock replaces Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who delighted in skewering the GOP-controlled Legislature at every opportunity.

Perhaps this session will turn out better than the last, which, at times, teetered somewhere between unfocused and crazy. While many in the GOP leadership emphasized jobs, a number of proposed bills were simply a waste of time. There was one to nullify federal laws. Another to embrace global warming as good for Montana’s economy. And still another allowing communities to organize armed paramilitary companies called “home guards.”

They may have been well intentioned, but none of them would have improved Montana’s economy. And Schweitzer didn’t help matters, demeaning lawmakers by vetoing Republican legislation with a branding iron on the Capitol steps – likely hardening his opposition’s resolve.

We’ll have to wait until the Legislature convenes to see what GOP lawmakers intend by sharpening their message. If that means differentiating themselves with Democrats on tax policy and spending priorities, that’s a good thing. A Republican Legislature and Democratic governor could, in theory, produce a balanced approach to crafting a state budget, their most important job during the session.

But it would be unfortunate if that means a repeat of 2011 when legislators and the governor continually sparred and the perception was that they were distracted by issues other than the economy.

Essmann and Wittich, who still have to be confirmed by the full Senate chamber in January, should be given the benefit of the doubt that they really want to establish a better relationship with the governor’s office. For Bullock’s part, he has said Republican leadership “will help shape what type of relationship we have as much as I will.”

That’s a good start. It would be difficult to top the theatrics of last session. Let’s hope no one tries.

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