At the start of the legislative session, I delivered my fourth and final State of the State address. I shared my optimism that in Montana we can still be a shining example of how our political system is supposed to work and that as elected leaders we should base our decisions not only on today’s needs, but with an eye toward improving the Montana our kids and grandkids – future legislators and governors – will inherit.
That optimism was proven out in the 66th Montana Legislative Session. Nearly every proposal I asked the legislative body to take seriously made it to my desk. Republicans and Democrats came together to do a job for Montanans, and it was done right.
For our education system: We have once again put a freeze on college tuition, preventing an increase for 28,000 Montana students and their families. We will no longer be the only state in the nation that doesn’t provide state-funded, need-based financial aid for students and adult learners. And we will be making an increased investment of $77 million over the next two years into our K-12 schools.
For Montanans’ health care: We reauthorized Medicaid expansion, preserving access to physical and mental health care for nearly one in 10 of our state’s population, while also preserving jobs, our economy, and our rural hospitals. We passed laws to tackle skyrocketing prescription drug costs, and for the Montanans who receive health coverage on the individual marketplace, we created a state reinsurance program to lower premiums by 10-20 percent.
For our economy: We have finally broken the logjam. Instead of passing on crumbling infrastructure to our kids, we will put shovels to dirt and create good-paying jobs. We will invest in water and sewer systems, bridges and more all across the state. Romney Hall at Montana State University will be renovated to benefit thousands of students, while we share with visitors our proud Montana history through a new Montana Heritage Center. And we will continue essential economic development tools that have helped over 15,000 small businesses expand their footprint and supported more than 12,000 jobs.
For our tribal nations: We passed a package of legislation, including Hanna’s Act, to report, investigate and address the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic. We’re again providing funding to preserve our Native languages, and so too our culture and rich history. And in two years when the legislature convenes again, the flags of our Tribal nations will be on permanent display on our State Capitol grounds.
For our firefighters: After a nearly two-decade fight, our firefighters will finally be getting the protections for job-related illnesses they and their families deserve.
For our elections: Montanans can rest assured that the source of spending flowing into our elections isn’t coming from foreign countries or foreign entities. Other states across the nation have tried to outlaw foreign money from their elections in recent years, but they haven’t gotten it done. In Montana this session, we did.
Of all the work accomplished, however, we do leave the session with a missed opportunity. The Legislature failed to invest in high-quality preschool. There are over 1,400 kids across the state who won’t be able to enter a preschool classroom next year and won’t have this opportunity to build on the foundational skills needed to succeed in school and in life. There are nearly 100 classrooms around the state at risk, teachers who could lose their jobs, and parents who won’t be able to participate in the workforce without a quality childcare option. Quality preschool and the lifelong benefits of early childhood education ought not be only for the families who can afford it. I call on our future leaders who convene again in 2021 to find a way to get a permanent, publicly-funded preschool program done for this state, once and for all.
The Legislature has now left town, but my work is not yet done. Over the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the nearly 300 bills headed to my desk that legislative leadership didn’t deliver over the last month. I will be making careful decisions to keep my promise to Montanans that we do not spend more than we take in and that we are left with a meaningful reserve for a rainy day. It is the fiscally responsible thing to do – and I will make sure of it.
I walked into my last session as governor hopeful and determined. I share that same sentiment today and know that Montanans can be pleased by the hard work of those legislators who made it not about political wins and losses, but instead about putting forth meaningful legislation. The work we’ve done this session will have a positive and lasting impact on Montana’s future and remain an example to the nation of how to govern.
Steve Bullock is the Democratic governor of Montana.