HELENA—Before the 2013 Legislature came to town, leaders of the Republican majorities talked about their desire to work with new Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock — and vice versa.
Bullock, after all, was not another Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who attacked the 2011 GOP-controlled Legislature as “bat-crap crazy and vetoed a record 79 bills.
Before the session, House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said, he believed the GOP-controlled Legislature and Bullock could find agreement in some areas and move forward.
“Obviously there will be disagreements, and that will be part of the process, but you can respectfully disagree too,” he said.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, took a similar tack, saying: “I look forward to working with Gov. Bullock to find solutions that will move Montana forward.”
In his State of the State address Jan. 30, Bullock reached out to legislators, saying: “Any change of administration naturally brings change to the governor’s mansion—changes in substance, style and perspective.”
Neither Bullock nor GOP leaders were under any illusion that the Legislature would rubber-stamp all of his proposals into law, or that he would sign all the bills the Republicans sent him. Some major philosophical differences exist between the two parties.
Yet halfway through the session, the Legislature already has rejected a number of Bullock’s key policy and budget proposals, while the future of others remain in question.
“There are a lot of issues that we’ve raised that are important to Montana that they’re still holding up or haven’t acted on,” Bullock said last week.
Already killed was his proposal to require 75 percent, up from the current 50 percent, of workers hired for state and local government public works projects to be Montanans.
His proposal to eliminate the business equipment tax for 10,300 Montana businesses was tabled in committee, while a rival Republican bill advanced.
Bullock’s plan to give homeowners a one-time $400 property tax rebate remains lodged in committee. An effort to blast it to the floor failed. The House already has given initial approval to an alternative Republican bill lower property taxes on residential and business property.
Several others of Bullock’s proposals have been heard— but not yet acted upon —by committees. There is still time before deadlines for committees to vote on these bills.
These include his proposals to raise state employees’ base pay by 5 percent in the next two years and his two plans to fix financially troubled pension funds for state employees and teachers.
The same is true for Bullock’s JOBS plan, which calls for the state to issue nearly $100 million in bonds to help finance the construction of new university system buildings and a new Historical Society museum building and to pay for major renovations of other facilities.
His proposal to expand Medicaid will be heard soon, but may be a tough sell with some Republicans.
As for the budget, Bullock’s office said the Legislature’s proposed spending increases and tax cuts so far are $1 billion more than what he proposed.
A joint appropriations subcommittee has kept Bullock’s proposal to provide enough money to the university system so it can freeze tuition for Montana residents over the next two years.
But a number of other Bullock’s programs that he highlighted in his State of the State address have been stripped from his proposed budget.
Granted, there is plenty of time to make changes. As Essmann said last week, lawmakers are halfway through the session, yet have only completed about 10 percent of the workload.
Blasdel said Republicans have similar ideas to Bullock’s, but in some cases are passing other bills that accomplish similar goals differently, such as using a property tax exemption —rather than a threshold —to lower business equipment taxes.
Bullock, like any governor, won’t come to the bargaining table empty-handed. He has plenty of tools available to help reverse some of these actions or amend his ideas into other bills.
First, the governor has the bully pulpit. What Bullock says usually generates news. He has the state airplane available for his use and has been traveling across the state to meet with Montanans and pitch his agenda.
“We’ve had great conversations out in the communities about what they expect of their elected representatives, and, hopefully, they’ll be hearing on that and acting on that in the second half of the session,” he said
Just as important, Bullock also has the governor’s power to shape what ultimately is passed or defeated at the Legislature.
He alone has the power to sign bills into law, to veto them, to propose amendments to bills sent to him, to line-item veto appropriations bills and to let bills become laws without his signature. These give him plenty of bargaining tools for the session’s remaining days. There also are enough Democrats in each chamber to prevent his vetoes from being overridden.
“I expect them not be spending or cutting more than we bring in,” Bullock said. “I’ll take a close look at every bill that comes to my desk. Those that aren’t creating jobs or improving our education system or making government more effective—those that aren’t consistent with the values of Main Street and mainstream Montana—will get a lot harder look.”
— Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 447-4066. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org