New Leaders, Fresh Start for Legislature

By Beacon Staff

With new leadership across the board, from both legislative chambers to the governor’s office, lawmakers head into the 2013 legislative session with a fresh start at their disposal. And the two top Republican leaders say that fresh start won’t be wasted – rather, it will be used as an opportunity to clean the slate and foster a more cooperative environment at the state capitol.

Rep. Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, the newly elected speaker of the House, and Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, the new Senate president, stopped by the Beacon office recently to outline their priorities for the upcoming Legislature, which convenes Jan. 7.

Among those priorities are boosting the economy, taking a serious look at the state’s budgetary approach, focusing on student achievement in education, holding the government more “accountable” and providing permanent property tax relief. Essmann mentioned reductions to the income tax as well.

And they also repeatedly addressed one of the most important variables in those policy discussions: their party’s relationship with the governor’s office.

The relationship between Republican lawmakers and outgoing Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been at times strained and at other times downright disdainful. But Blasdel says there is a genuine feeling that things may be different with Democratic governor-elect Steve Bullock.

“There’s a lot of optimism that there’s going to be a lot better relationship,” Blasdel said.

Bullock, in an interview shortly after his November election, expressed a similar sentiment, saying he intends to show a commitment to cooperation. But he also noted that it “takes two to tango” and said he wouldn’t be afraid to brandish the veto pen on bills that he deems against the state’s best interest or ridiculous.

The Democrat has been critical of some of the same bills that Schweitzer called “bat-crap crazy” during the 2011 legislative session. That list included bills involving the gold standard, seceding from the nation, nullifying federal laws and more.

Though Blasdel and Essmann didn’t specifically mention any of the aforementioned bills, or any other bills, they did say they have explicitly asked Republican lawmakers in their respective chambers to focus on the important issues. Blasdel also pointed out that roughly 40 percent – 39 representatives – are freshmen in the House.

“We’ve been talking a lot with our caucus – stay focused; stay realistic,” Blasdel said, adding that it’s important to concentrate “on bills you think you can work with the governor on.”

Essmann added: “You don’t need to have 18 bills. Keep it focused.”

Essmann and Blasdel said they are eager to see Bullock’s specific proposals and bring forth their own. Then the two sides can sit down at the negotiating table and try to find some middle ground.

The two Republican leaders also addressed the perception that there are divisions within their own party following a caucus vote that shook up leadership.

While Blasdel replaces outgoing Rep. Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, Essmann secured a narrow victory over sitting president Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. Also, Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, edged out Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, for majority leader, a surprise to many observers.

Essmann said he’s not concerned about divisions within the Senate because, even if a caucus can’t be expected to agree on every issue, “we agree on the fundamentals for moving the state forward.”

“Our work is what will bring us together,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’ll come together and work well together.”