Bullock: Montana's Economy is Strong and Growing; GOP Counters Montana Not Like Helena
The priorities Governor Steve Bullock promoted last night during his 3rd State of the State Address were familiar themes from past speeches and from last fall’s re-campaign.
“Fiscal responsibility. Education. Infrastructure. Job Creation. Caring for others,” Bullock summarized.
He reported to a joint session of the Republican controlled House and Senate, ““Montana’s economy is sold, and growing. Today, more Montanans have jobs than ever before in our state’s history.”
Democrats jumped to their feet, applauding, as Republicans on the other side of the aisle remained quietly in their seats.
The budget is the focus of the 2017 Legislative session because of declining revenue from energy and other commodities has led to not enough money to cover on-going expenses. The Bullock Administration proposed $102 million in spending cuts; Republicans says that’s not enough.
Bullock recalled the words of former governors, including some Republicans, to add some historically perspective to his current administration's priorities.
“I am certainly not the first governor to insist on fiscal discipline from this body,” Bullock said. Then he quoted former Governor Ted Schwinden, “’I will maintain an open mind – and a sense of humor – as we debate the differences; but I will not stand by and allow Montana’s favorable fiscal standing to be nickeled-and-dimed to death. I will insist that we maintain a ‘Black Ink Cushion – a reasonable and necessary ending fund balance. Montana’s budget must not be stained by red ink.’”
Despite that, most of his priorities still fell on the deaf ears of the GOP majority.
During his speech, Bullock outlined other ways he hopes to make up for the declines in the budget, including increasing taxes on the wealthy.
“It also doesn’t make sense to me, or to most Montanans, that someone making 9 dollars an hour pays the same tax rate as someone making 250 dollars an hour,” he said. “Increasing the top tax rate for any income over a half million dollars, and other modest revenue proposals before you, are fair.”
Republicans have already shot down that plan. They’re also skeptical of his plan to spend state money for free public preschool.
Still Bullock asked lawmakers to reconsider his proposed $12 million preschool grant program, “to allow school districts, Head Start programs or high-quality private preschool providers to offer preschool for four-year-old kids at or below the Federal Poverty Level.”
Bullock also brought back what he calls a ‘Paycheck Transparency Act’, to ensure that women and men are paid fairly for their work.
A statewide infrastructure plan remains a top priority after failing by one vote in the 2015 legislative session. Bullock touted his nearly $300 million proposal to invest in bridges, roads, water systems and schools.
In response, Republicans have said the includes projects that they don’t consider critical for a statewide infrastructure package. They also differ on how to pay for that work.
The governor’s stance that received the most enthusiastic and loudest applause came when Bullock repeated lines often heard on his re-election campaign speeches over the last year.
“And let me be clear again. Do not send bills to my desk that even suggest or start down the path of transferring our public lands out of public hands. Because that will not happen - not on my watch,” Bullock said to the standing ovation from legislative members of his own political party.
Republicans, meanwhile, gave an equally hearty response to the GOP’s rebuttal on the issue of public lands. After the State of the State address, Republicans moved from the House chambers and down the hall to the Senate Floor to receive the GOP response.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen praised the Trump Administration for its natural resource development stance and for naming Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to be the next U.S. Interior Secretary.
“It will be amazing to have someone with strong Montana values in the Trump administration overseeing the management of our public lands in Montana, and pushing back against the Obama administration’s recent despicable act of closing of thousands of miles of access roads to our public lands,” Knudsen said.
GOP Senators and Representatives to jump to their feet for a standing ovation while the few Democrats in attendance on the Senate Floor sat silently and watched.
“This is yet another area where Governor Bullock has shown no leadership and has not pushed back at all on the federal government in these actions,” said Knudsen.
Lack of leadership was the overall theme of the GOP response.
“Governor Bullock and HIS agencies that are at the wheel of the state ship. And ladies and gentlemen of Montana, that ship is heading toward an iceberg. And the captain is too busy listening to the orchestra play and rearranging deck chairs to see the crash coming,” Knudsen said. He noted lawmakers are in Helena for only 90 days every other year and it was up to Bullock to see the beginnings of the budget crisis and take early action.
“The governor had very little to say about Colstrip this evening. And that’s disappointing,” Knudsen added. He said that’s despite the uncertainty facing that southeastern Montana community with the pending closure of two coal-fired power plants.
Knudsen said by contrast Republicans and Democrats are sponsoring bills aimed at mitigation. He announced he will sponsor legislation aimed at keeping Units 1 & 2 open.
Despite the deep philosophical differences outlined in the two speeches, both sides did issue the call to work together.
“Tonight, I am asking you to focus on the shared values that unite us, so we may move our state forward,” said Bullock at the end of his address. “The future is within our reach. But we must work together, and the time for games is over. We must engage in thoughtful, rational, and constructive dialogue with one another.”
“As the legislative session continues, I look forward to working with colleagues in the Senate, and with the Governor, as we work to reach results – because that’s what the people of Montana sent us here to do,” said Knudsen in conclusion of his nearly 15 minute speech.