In terms of partisan power, the state and nation veered in polar opposite political directions last week.
Montana swore in a slate of Republicans, including Gov. Greg Gianforte, giving the GOP the executive position for the first time in 16 years. Republicans also increased their majorities in the Senate and House, in addition to now occupying every statewide seat.
Meanwhile, the nation took a decidedly leftward turn with a Democratic sweep of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoffs, handing the party an effective majority in the chamber, along with its majority in the U.S. House. President-elect Joe Biden has a much clearer path to furthering his agenda.
While the lack of Montana’s traditional ticket-splitting tendencies in November suggests the state is similarly hardened in its political tribalism as the rest of the country, it’s worth acknowledging that the state’s transfer of power has been respectful, in stark contrast to the unsavory political theatrics and violence that engulfed D.C. last week.
Democrats are understandably wary of the possibilities presented by Republican-dominated state leadership, and clearly Gianforte’s priorities will differ from those of former Gov. Steve Bullock. But, if early signs are indicative, liberals’ doomsday scenario of a hard-right free-for-all in Helena may not come to fruition.
For starters, Gianforte has proposed a largely middle-of-the-road budget. While it features a number of standard conservative checkmarks, such as tax cuts and $100 million less in spending than Bullock’s proposal, it achieves the savings predominantly by capping new spending rather than slashing core services, and it doesn’t set fire to fundamental progressive concerns such as public education.
Even responses from natural critics have been muted. Montana Conservation Voters released a statement criticizing Gianforte for diverting marijuana revenue away from conservation, but that was couched in an otherwise approving assessment in which the group said it was “pleased” that the budget funds “many of the state agencies and outdoor programs we care about.”
Gianforte, to be sure, has laid out proposals that are anathema to liberals, including a tax cut that critics say favors the wealthy and the slashing of early childhood education funding. His FWP appointments have also raised alarms among sportsmen and conservationists.
Additionally, the new governor announced the lifting of his predecessor’s COVID-19 restrictions, including the eventual rescindment of the mask mandate, and angered teachers by pushing them further back on the vaccination schedule.
But Gianforte’s early actions may be just as likely to rankle the GOP’s right wing, with proposals such as directing $800,000 to implement the CSKT water compact and leaving essential services mostly intact.
Taken altogether, Gianforte has thus far projected a gentler aura and more moderate approach than many on the left may have expected. There’s plenty of time for all of that to shift, and the Republican-led Legislature will be highly influential in shaping the budget and policy.
One central component of the governor’s job is wielding the signature or veto pen. Bills that Bullock consistently shut down, such as the loosening of firearm restrictions in public places, may now become law, although the battle between moderate and hardline Republicans will decide a lot of the most controversial legislation long before it hits Gianforte’s desk.
Once bills do make it to the new governor in the coming months, his pen will tell us a lot about what we can expect over the next four years.
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