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Gianforte Touts Resilience, Reiterates Priorities In First State Of The State

Greg Gianforte speaks from a lectern in the Montana House chamber.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte addresses the 67th Montana Legislature during his first State of the State address Jan. 28, 2021.

Greg Gianforte gave his first State of the State address Thursday night before the 67th Montana legislature. Gianforte continued to outline his campaign promises to cut taxes, reduce regulations and move the state forward amid the pandemic and on policy blocked under previous Democratic governors.

Nicky Ouellet, Yellowstone Public Radio, HOST: Kevin, this was one of Gianforte's first major addresses as governor. Set the scene for me.

Kevin Trevellyan, Yellowstone Public Radio, BYLINE: Governor Gianforte came into the House chambers masked and shaking hands with lawmakers as he walked down the aisle and then he unmasked to begin the speech. He got his first big standing ovation when he was talking about the pandemic. He said that he had asked Pres. Joe Biden to increase vaccine shipments. And while Gov. Gianforte acknowledged the public health component of the pandemic, he also made sure to emphasize the economic impact. He got a lot more applause when he talked about lifting what he called arbitrary restrictions on business capacity and operating hours that his Democratic predecessor had imposed.

Greg Gianforte SOUNDBITE "Instead were relying on business owners to follow industry best practices and public health guidance rather than relying on the long reach and heavy hand of government."

Ouellet: Gianforte's big theme of the night was resilience coming out of the pandemic, coming out from under Steve Bullock's eight years of Democratic oversight in the governor's office. He laid out priorities consistent with his Montana Comeback Plan. What was new there?

Trevellyan: Gov. Gianforte's Montana Comeback Plan was kind of his big guiding playbook for what he would do if elected to the governor's office. A big focus of that document is tax reform and these were included in the proposed budget that Gianforte released. During the speech, he mentioned the need to lower the personal income tax rate in Montana, boosting an existing tax exemption on business equipment and he also talked about the need to address property tax rises. His big overall point is that Montana is losing out on business opportunities and good jobs from its tax code.

Gianforte SOUNDBITE: "To get our economy going again, to get Montana open for business, to get Montanans back to work in good paying jobs, we must make Montana competitive. "

Gianforte painted a pretty dire picture of Montana's tax system during the speech. But it's also worth noting that the nonprofit Tax Foundation found the state's tax code fifth friendliest in the country this year, partly because we don't have a sales tax.

Shaylee Ragar, Montana Public Radio, BYLINE: I would just like to interject quickly and say that Gianforte outlines these tax cuts in his budget. And he said during the State of the State that his budget is balanced. Fiscal analysts for the legislature have said that his proposed budget would lead to a $59 million deficit for the state, meaning that the state would spend more than it brings in. That's about a two percent negative structural balance. The Republican chair of the Appropriations Committee has said that's a bit concerning Gianforte's Budget Director Kurt Alme has said that he does also recognize that the proposal would lead to a deficit. But he says the state can generate new revenue to make that up.

Ouellet: Gianforte also highlighted a number of bills that Republicans are moving through the legislature.

Trevellyan: He mentioned his support for a couple bills that represent long standing GOP priorities. Those include bills banning sanctuary cities and others that would limit abortion access. One of those bills would require health care providers to care for babies born after an attempted abortion and the other one would bar abortions after 20 weeks.

Gianforte SOUNDBITE "These are necessary compassionate measures where we should all be able to find common ground. And I will sign both of them into law."

Ouellet: Any olive branches to Democratic priorities?

Trevellyan: He did mention some bipartisan priorities currently working their way through the legislature. One of those is to raise pay for starting teachers in Montana. He also talked about combating meth addiction and he also called out Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Crow Agency, who is currently working on some bills to address the missing and murdered Indigenous persons crisis in Montana.

Laurie Bishop speaks at a lectern in the Montana House chambers.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Rep. Laurie Bishop (D-Livingston) delivers the Democratic response to Gov. Greg Gianforte's State of the State address Jan. 28, 2021.

Ouellet: Livingston Democratic Rep. Laurie Bishop delivered her party's response. How did she play off of Gianforte's address?

Ragar: We saw Bishop come out and be very critical in her rebuttal of Republicans. It's important to note here that Democrats lost big in the 2020 election. Democrats lost 10 seats to Republicans. They lost the governor's office and they lost every statewide office. And it does seem that they are trying to rebrand their party's priorities as focusing on the economy and jobs. Bishop was particularly critical of Republicans for focusing on social issues in the first month of the legislature.

Laurie Bishop SOUNDBITE "After a long campaign season talking about jobs, Montana Republicans have let our economic recovery fall by the wayside. Instead, they have focused their energies on attacking the freedoms of Montanans women and children."

Ragar: Bishop is referring here to legislation that Republicans are pushing through the legislature that would restrict access to abortion and ban transgender women from competing in women's interscholastic sports.

Ouellet: What are Democrats coming to the table with in terms of advancing economic policy?

Ragar: Bishop talked about boosting small businesses, protecting unions and workers rights, and pushing policies to expand the middle class, as she said.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.