HELENA — Democratic lawmakers were able to accomplish most of their priorities in during the legislative session, while GOP leaders said they displayed the unity that would help elect a Republican governor in 2020.
The Legislature adjourned on Thursday having passed a Medicaid expansion bill, approved $2.7 billion in infrastructure projects and a bill to fund a new Montana Historical Society museum, all key priorities for Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
“Dang near every proposal that I asked this legislative body to seriously consider will be making its way to my desk,” Bullock said Thursday. “I say this to underscore that the budget and policies that we passed this session truly are a reflection of the values of the Montanans that we serve.”
The Democrats’ success comes despite being the minority party in both chambers. That’s because they found a group of moderate Republicans with similar goals on certain bills with whom they could negotiate and vote in a coalition that outnumbered the conservatives.
Republican Rep. Llew Jones said there were three blocs within the Republican caucus: one consisting of the extreme right, including libertarians and constitutionalists; another aligned with House Speaker Greg Hertz; and the moderates.
Jones rejected the notion that some Republicans joined Democrats in passing major legislation. Rather, he said, it was the other way around, with Democrats joining initiatives led by moderate Republicans, whom he called the “conservative solutions caucus.”
“I’m happy we worked together,” Jones said Friday, “but sometimes the story has to be that, look, Democrats joined with some of the conservative solutions caucus.”
He noted it was Republican Rep. Ed Buttrey’s Medicaid expansion bill that passed; it was Republican Rep. Eric Moore’s infrastructure framework bill that paved the way for bonding this session and Republican Sen. Terry Gauthier who carried the museum bill.
The Medicaid expansion program has a work requirement, a stronger asset test and does a better job of confirming an applicant’s income — all Republican priorities. But Democrats were able to remove a provision that would have ended the program if the federal government rejected the work requirements.
The infrastructure bonding bill sets limits based on the state’s debt, revenues and the solvency of its pension programs, making it easier for conservative Republicans to support, while the 1% increase in the state’s lodging tax that funds the museum bill also creates a grant program for upgrades to museums around the state, Jones said.
“The moderate Republicans got some of what they wanted and the Democrats got some of what they wanted and the governor was willing to work through this to pass something,” said Jeremy Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Carroll College.
Back in November, before the session even began, Republican legislative leaders said one of their top goals was to unite to win back the governor’s office in 2020. Bullock is leaving office because of term limits.
Attorney General Tim Fox, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and state Sen. Al Olszewski have announced their candidacy for the Republican nomination. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte also is considering a run, and no Democrat has yet announced a bid.
Senate President Scott Sales said Republicans made their case by trying to “keep a lid on spending. It’s always extremely difficult to do that especially when there’s an adequate amount of money.”
“We sent to the governor an opportunity to maybe give our senior citizens a little bit of tax relief. He saw fit not to do that,” Sales said about Bullock’s veto of a bill to lower taxes on Social Security income.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said it was a key goal to make sure Republicans weren’t “in a big mess” leaving the session, even if that didn’t mean agreeing on every bill.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished in the 2019 session,” Sales said. “Where we could agree, we agreed, and where we didn’t, we did it respectfully. Our strength and our weakness both is the fact that Republicans have a very independent streak.”
House Majority Leader Brad Tschida thanked the conservative Republicans in the House, but said the party should have worked harder to reject several tax increases and oppose Medicaid expansion.
“I believe we could have done more,” Tschida said Thursday. “Despite there being 58 Republicans in this chamber, we are not the majority.”
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