BILLINGS — Buoyed by victories at the national level and in the Legislature, Montana Republican leaders said Wednesday they expect the state’s Democratic governor to shift politically in their direction as he enters a second term.
Republicans gained three state Senate seats in Tuesday’s election and will hold a 32-18 majority.
They swept every statewide office except the gubernatorial race — in which Democrat Steve Bullock eked out a victory over challenger Greg Gianforte — and will maintain their 59-41 advantage in the House.
Yet Democrats refused to bend in the election’s immediate aftermath, rejecting the notion of a Republican voter mandate and noting that Bullock still wields the veto pen.
The opposing messages from the two sides set the stage for a repeat of the often-bitter partisan acrimony that emerged during Bullock’s first term.
Bullock said during a victory speech Wednesday in Helena that he expects party leaders to come together “to do the right things for Montana.”
But outgoing Senate President Debby Barrett called on the governor to work directly with the Republican leadership, rather than the handful of GOP moderates that Bullock relied on to advance pieces of his agenda during the 2015 session.
“The ball is in the governor’s court,” said Barrett, of Dillon. “If he wants to ram his liberal agenda and his liberal spending and pick up the same few, sorry Republicans as in his first term, then he will set the stage.”
Pointing to Donald Trump’s election and GOP victories in Montana, state Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann said it was incumbent on Bullock to move toward a “conservative and populist Republican agenda.”
Barrett and other Republicans also vowed to pursue their election-season calls for investigations into Bullock’s deletion of emails from his years as attorney general and allegations of retaliation against employees who raised concerns about wrongdoing within state agencies.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, a Helena Democrat, rejected the proposals for further investigations into those matters as politically driven.
“I hope we get back to the business of government rather than to the business of making the other guy look bad for political gain,” Hunter said.
There will be at least 15 freshman lawmakers in the Senate and several dozen in the House, lawmakers said. Democratic minority leader Jon Sesso of Butte said the pack of newcomers offers a chance to move on from the “games” of the election season and work collaboratively on more substantive issues.
Further complicating the upcoming legislative session are declines in tax revenues that have drastically reduced the state’s budget surplus, from more than $455 million in 2015 to a projected $110 million in 2017, according to a September report from the Legislative Fiscal Division.
An updated 2017 budget outlook is due next week.
Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip is among the so-called responsible Republicans who worked out a budget compromise with Bullock in 2015, drawing the ire of Barrett and others from the party’s conservative wing.
Ankney predicted similar efforts will be needed to reach agreement during the next session on the biennial budget, regulations for natural resources development and public works and other infrastructure spending.
Ankney added that the declining surplus could make some of those tasks more straightforward. “You’re going to have to deal with the people’s needs and not a lot of wants,” he said.
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