Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

Bullock’s Last Session

The governor is declaring victory following the end of the 2019 Legislature

Walking away from his final session, Gov. Steve Bullock is declaring victory.

“Nearly every proposal I asked the legislative body to take seriously made it to my desk,” the Democrat wrote in a post-session op-ed. “Republicans and Democrats came together to do a job for Montanans, and it was done right.”

That second sentence is sure to rankle folks in certain conservative circles who believe that, once again, moderate Republicans betrayed their party by working with Democrats to pass legislation.

This has been the overriding theme of Montana legislative sessions since 2013: a group of center-leaning Republicans working across the aisle to craft legislation opposed by the GOP’s more conservative wing.

Beyond the political machinations at play, there is basic math to consider. A voting majority is a voting majority, no matter its makeup, and the numbers suggest those final outcomes are more representative of Montanans’ broader interests than proposals put forth by conservative Republicans and opposed by the bipartisan coalition.

In any case, it’s true that at least some of the bipartisan cooperation is a function of checks and balances — call it necessity born of structure — in which moderate Republicans know they have to work with the opposite party because a Democratic governor is waiting with a veto pen.

That could all change with the next governor’s race. If a Republican wins, it will be interesting to see what happens with these bipartisan coalitions. A Tim Fox governorship would move the needle right of Bullock, of course, but likely keep it closer to center than, say, a Greg Gianforte governorship.

Either way, the imperative for certain Republicans to vote with Democrats would dissipate, although there would still be lingering ideological differences, which are often sharp, within the GOP.

But those are hypotheticals. As for the evidence at hand, it’s easy to see why Bullock is calling the session a win. The outgoing governor identified a number of results that pleased him, including a college tuition freeze; $77 million for K-12 schools; laws tackling prescription drug costs; $2.7 billion in infrastructure spending; legislation addressing the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women; and restrictions on foreign spending in elections.

The biggest victory, of course, came with the continuation of Medicaid expansion for six more years.

It’s worth noting that Republican lawmakers were the primary sponsors on many of those bills, including Medicaid expansion, leading Llew Jones, R-Conrad, to reject the notion that moderate Republicans joined Democrats. Jones says, rather, moderate Republicans led the way and Democrats joined them.

Bullock didn’t get his whole wish list, however. One of his top priorities, public funding for preschool, never made it to his desk. Montana remains one of the only states without state-supported preschool. Nor is Bullock’s work done, as he has plenty of bills awaiting either his approval or veto.

A Democrat has occupied the governor’s mansion for 16 straight years, and it’s unclear who will emerge as the party’s best opportunity to continue that reign. Neither the state Senate nor House of Representatives is at serious risk of flipping from a Republican majority, meaning GOP domination across the board is a reasonable possibility.

If that happens, Democrats will look back to Bullock’s last session and be thankful he secured those party priorities when he did.