The 67th Montana Legislature convened Jan. 4, kicking off its 90-day session with the inauguration of newly minted Gov. Greg Gianforte, the first Republican to occupy the state’s top executive seat in 16 years, while continuing to address a host of public health concerns as lawmakers prepare to legislate amid a global pandemic.
As Montana’s 25th governor, Gianforte’s swearing-in places him in charge of the only state in the nation whose governorship changed party hands in November, while resounding Republican electoral victories bolstered existing GOP majorities in both houses, giving the party wide political latitude. Party leaders have made clear their interpretation of the election results as a mandate from voters, and they’ve seized on that directive as the session takes shape.
In Gianforte’s inaugural address, he briefly celebrated having flipped the governor’s seat with the widest margin for a first-term governor in a century and saluted his fellow Republicans’ landslide successes. But he also recognized the “grave challenges of the last year” and the hard work that lies ahead, particularly as lawmakers look to prop up an economy staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am confident, with vaccines and increased testing, we will get a better handle on our response to COVID-19,” Gianforte said in his address, which he delivered to a small audience following a virtual swearing-in ceremony. “I am confident our economy will rebound. I am confident Montanans will get back to work in good-paying jobs. I am confident we will recover. I am confident that Montana will make our comeback. Today’s inauguration sets a new course for Montana. Today marks a new chapter in our history.”
Gianforte has served as Montana’s lone Congressman for the past four years, and ran unsuccessfully for his new position in 2016. On Jan. 4, he thanked former Gov. Steve Bullock for the Democrat’s effort to ensure a smooth transition and for his eight years of service to Montana.
But with the balance of the political scales in Helena now tipped heavily in Republicans’ favor, Gianforte laid out four core principles he said will serve as his guiding star, and which align strongly with conservative fundamentals — economic growth, fiscal responsibility, reform, and “protecting our way of life.”
Still, the governor extended a degree of statesmanship to his political allies and rivals alike.
“While these core principles will guide me, I firmly believe there is more that unites us than divides us,” he said. “That’s why I look forward to working with anyone — Democrat, Republican, or independent — who has a good idea.”
Democratic leadership said the minority party stands poised to fight to create new jobs and opportunity while shepherding Montanans safely through the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been a polarizing point of contention.
“Our caucuses have decades of experience working across the aisle to pass legislation that expands economic opportunity for all Montanans, and we plan to build on those successes and overcome new, unprecedented obstacles in 2021,” according to a joint statement from Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “We hope that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle can find it within them to help conduct a session that is safe, predictable, and open to the kind of public participation Montanans have come to expect.”
Even so, Montana’s Republican lawmakers ushered in the New Year having already rejected proposals by Democrats to delay the session until vaccines are more widely available; allow the session to be held remotely; require that masks be worn inside the state Capitol; and require that lawmakers maintain six feet of separation while conducting business.
Legislators approved rule changes to allow for remote participation and the creation of a bipartisan COVID-19 Response Panel, which is authorized to “exercise authority over all aspects of legislative business that are impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency,” but none of the new rules require compliance with public health guidelines that most Montanans have adopted as part of their daily lives, such as mask-wearing and capacity limits indoors.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, chair of the House Rules Committee, dug in his heels on any effort to hold the session entirely remotely due to COVID-19, characterizing the state as being headed toward “herd immunity.”
Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Bigfork, voiced confidence in the flexibility granted to lawmakers to work remotely this session, allowing them to effectively “legislate during a global pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years.”
“We are having our first hybrid session in Montana history, with the ability for lawmakers and the public to make their voice heard remotely as well as in person,” Blasdel said, explaining that both parties came together to craft seating charts in both chambers tailored to individual lawmakers’ preferences. “Montana is a diverse state, and that is why the Republican leadership passed rules that allows each individual member to participate based on their individual decisions and comfort levels.”
Despite the logistical uncertainty of the hybrid model for participation, and the health-related pitfalls that may disrupt such an expansive and sustained assembly amid a pandemic, legislators had already introduced a glut of bills as of Jan. 4, and Republican lawmakers expressed an eagerness to repair the infighting that has fractured the party in recent years, when a Democratic governor’s veto pen placed sidebars on a fully realized Republican agenda.
“Today is a new day for Montana with Greg Gianforte being sworn in as our new governor,” Blasdel said. “We look forward to working with Governor Gianforte to start Montana’s comeback, get our economy going, shore up our health care system, and protect the Montana way of life.”
Members of both the House and Senate had already introduced 167 pieces of legislation as of the session’s first day, with more than 3,100 pieces of legislation appearing on the draft request list, covering a gamut of issues ranging from proposed changes to state gambling laws to a program that would financially compensate people wrongfully convicted of felony criminal offenses.
Although Gianforte hadn’t released his budget proposal before the Beacon’s print deadline on Jan. 4, he emphasized holding the line on state spending during his inaugural remarks without providing details on whether state government would endure cuts as a means of passing a balanced budget.
“For too long, state spending has grown out of control as taxpayers send more money to Helena. Its appetite has been insatiable,” Gianforte said. “We must provide essential services while living within our means and providing much needed tax relief to hardworking Montanans. We must be better stewards of taxpayer money, and we must run our state government more efficiently.”
But Republican leadership hasn’t shied away from discussions surrounding reductions in spending, even as Blasdel emphasized that his strategy was aimed at “looking for efficiencies and being financially prudent.”
In addition to passing a balanced budget, Montana’s roster of 150 lawmakers — with Republican members occupying 98 of those seats — will also consider changes to tax revenue, with the governor calling for an initiative to reform the state’s tax code this session.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.