With GOP Senate Rift, Hints of Republican-Democrat Coalition Emerge

By Beacon Staff

Midway through the 63rd Legislative Session, a rift within the GOP Senate is moving beyond rhetoric and into voting records, with hints of a coalition forming between Democrats and Republicans outside of caucus leadership.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, a Kalispell Republican and chair of the Senate tax committee, says his caucus’ leaders have failed to “craft a clear message of leadership that the caucus can agree on or that is informed,” while espousing a far-right agenda out of touch with Montana’s needs.

The senator also said those same leaders have attempted to manipulate the policymaking process to undermine legislation they don’t support, a claim refuted by the Senate president. Tutvedt’s comments came on Feb. 26, a day before the Senate headed to its midway recess.

Tutvedt, last session’s Senate president pro tempore, and former Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo were narrowly ousted from leadership positions in a secret ballot caucus vote last November, in a move that surprised many political observers.

The Great Falls Tribune later uncovered emails showing that several senators, including newly elected President Jeff Essmann of Billings and Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman, had plotted to take over GOP caucus leadership from members they considered too moderate, namely Tutvedt and Peterson.

Though Essmann has said core conservative values would bring the caucus together despite the leadership changeup and email controversy, Tutvedt said last week “those divides are still in the Senate.” Essmann said in a Feb. 27 interview that it’s natural to have differences in opinions within a caucus.

Tutvedt has indicated he and other “Reagan Republicans” in the Senate are willing to work with Democrats on bipartisan policies, like a major education funding measure that passed out of the Senate on Feb. 23 with votes from both sides of the aisle. Tutvedt expects the coalition to be apparent in other important policy discussions as well.

“The pieces are being put in place with a broad coalition,” Tutvedt said last week, suggesting his caucus’ leaders are in the minority. “The majority of the caucus will continue to do the right things for the right reasons.”

Democrat Jon Sesso of Butte, the Senate minority leader, also spoke of a potential coalition that he hopes can hammer out middle-ground legislation on the state’s main “pillars,” such as pension reform, a jobs bill and perhaps even Medicaid expansion, once a Republican anathema that is now gaining support from conservatives in other states.

“I’m hopeful – guys like Bruce and others have indicated a willingness to work with us on a daily basis and to get the people’s business done,” Sesso said. “I can embrace some of the same concepts that the (Republican) moderates support.”

“Politically, I just think we have our choice,” he added. “We can go the way we went last time and keep sending to the governor proposals that he cannot support or we can go the other way – it’s just that simple. When I say the Republicans need Democrats to pass the budget, my point is: the bottom line is those Democrats include the governor.”

The education funding measure — Senate Bill 175 introduced by Conrad Republican Sen. Llew Jones – received support from teachers’ unions, the state’s top education official, all Senate Democrats and a bloc of Republicans, including Tutvedt and Peterson. It passed out of the Senate with a final 32-17 vote and has been transmitted to the House, where its future is uncertain with a heavy GOP majority.

Senate Republicans involved in the controversial emails uncovered by the Tribune – including Jason Priest of Red Lodge, Majority Whip Eric Moore of Miles City, Ed Walker of Billings, Wittich and Essmann – voted no while supporting amendments to alter the proposal. Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, who was also part of the email exchanges, voted in favor of the bill.

Sesso said the foundation for a budding bipartisan coalition could be detected in the vote tallies for the education bill, which proposes to increase education funding through an influx of natural resource development revenue while providing property tax relief for homeowners. Sesso also noted that Tutvedt would be a “key player” in any coalition as the chair of the influential Senate tax committee.

State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt addresses the Senate during the 63rd Legislative Session in Helena. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“That (education) package did sort of lay down a group of legislators on both sides of the aisle interested in getting good ideas moving forward,” Sesso said. “I’m hoping that coalition will hold true on the other major pillars.”

Sesso is also hopeful that bipartisan legislation emerging from the Senate will have a chance in the Republican-controlled House. He said the Legislature is fueled by relationships and, having spent four terms in the House, he has strong ties with representatives on both sides of the aisle, as do other senators in the coalition.

The Butte Democrat said he has a particularly good relationship with Republican Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel of Somers, who he calls a friend and sensible leader.

“I believe those relationships will pay off,” Sesso said.

Peterson said earlier this week the “general public is tired of gridlock” and that it will “probably take some bipartisan support to reach agreement” on major issues like the budget and pension reform.

“We can have these discussions and still keep our conservative principles,” Peterson said. “This idea that you can’t talk to people across the aisle is ludicrous. It doesn’t mean we’re going to vote together but we can at least talk.”

“I think there will be a number of places where you might see bipartisan support,” he added.

Tutvedt accused Republican Senate caucus leaders of holding up the education funding bill in the queue for an inordinate amount of time – 17 days compared to the usual four or so – in an attempt to undermine it, allowing the measure to approach the transmittal deadline.

“When they try to play games with the Llew Jones bill or (other bills), we’re going to hold them accountable and find ways to pass good legislation,” Tutvedt said. “They need to stop their attempts to manipulate the system and let great policy move forward.”

Peterson had similar concerns with how the education measure was handled, both in how long it took to advance to the Senate floor and the flurry of late amendments.

“Frankly, the bill was in the making for two years and all the amendments surfaced in the last two days,” he said.

In an interview at his state Capitol office, Essmann denied that Jones’ measure was held up to delay it, but said he believed such a sweeping restructuring of education funding required due diligence. And he said “four or five of those days we were waiting for the fiscal note,” which left “a little over a week” to properly examine a bill of its size before moving it forward.

“From my perspective, I think it was prudent to give the senators on both sides of the aisle the time to research how that bill worked, how it was put together, what impacts it would have both on taxpayers and school districts,” Essmann said.

“The bill got a hearing and met its deadline and it’s in the possession of the House at this point,” he added.

Essmann reiterated his stance that Republicans throughout the caucus have diverse opinions but agree on broad conservative values of reduced government and “tax policies that favor growth.” He also said members of the caucus who supported Peterson in the election have approached him to say they appreciate the job he’s doing as president.

“Part of my job being a leader, I’ve got to turn the other cheek because I have a job to do and I’m going to do it,” Essmann said. “When you take a leadership position, you expose yourself to criticism and that’s not going to go away.”

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