The "Capitol Talk" crew reviews the first half of the legislative session and previews the budget and infrastructure debates still to come. They also look at the front-runners for each party's nomination to fill the state's vacant U.S. House Seat, and speculate about Tim Fox's political ambitions. Join Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin for "Capitol Talk."
Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Capitol Talk," our weekly legislative analysis program, I'm Sally Mauk and I"m joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin and veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Chuck, lawmakers are on their mid-term break, but they'll be back in session on Monday and bills like allowing hunters to wear pink are going to give way to the bigger issues of the budget and infrastructure in this second half.
Chuck Johnson: That's correct Sally. The budget is always the biggest issue of any session. They're constitutionally bound to pass a balanced budget. The budget right now is not passing with the approval of Governor Steve Bullock a Democrat. He was highly critical of it a press conference earlier this week. He's particularly critical and so are Democratic legislative leaders of how higher education and health sand human services were treated in the budget by the subcommittees. They're saying that if the budge that come out of subcommittees stands, for higher education, it could lead to a tuition increase of 1,000 per year for in-state university system students. And I saw a story in the Chronicle today that the governor, speaking to their editorial board there, said who knows, it could even lead to the closure of one of the campuses of the University system, which is one I had not heard previously.
SM: The state revenue picture, chuck, is improving, we'll have a new, maybe more accurate forecast later this month. Will that have much impact on the budget that this session has to pass?
CJ: It could Sally. There've been two revenue estimates from the legislative fiscal division using data from a national consulting firm they use. But no one is putting too much stock in those at the moment because they're primarily based on national trends extrapolated to Montana. By the March report later this month, it should include some Montana data such as income tax filings by people to see how they're doing, so it could. The other part of the budget that's really not up to what Bullock and Democrats want is Health and Human Services, particularly long-term senior care, and that one is far short of what the governor wants so, I think that's a big issue too.
SM: And still looming, of course, in terms of impact on state budgets is federal repeal of Obamacare. And there are many governors and state legislators watching that with more than a wary eye. Is that true of Montana lawmakers as well, Chuck?
CJ: Well, they're watching it. To my knowledge nothing has been done at the state level, but the President of the Senate Scott Sales of Bozeman has said several times he'd like the Legislature to finish it's work earlier than anticipated so they can save some days to come back later to deal with that issue or any other issue that stem from President Trump's agenda that Congress might pass. And originally he was saying he wanted to get out in 70 days and then leave 20 days for more work. I haven't heard much about that lately. Frankly, they have a lot of work yet to do on the budget here and infrastructure.
SM: A ton of work, and we'll be watching that throughout the second half of the session. Rob, this week Congressman Ryan Zinke was finally confirmed at the new secretary of the Interior, and Governor Bullock has set May 25 as the day his successor in Congress will be chosen. Democrats are picking their nominee this weekend, and Republicans on Monday, and there are a lot of contenders in both major parties and some Libertarian candidates to boot.
Rob Saldin: There sure are, a very long list of candidates. Although it's also true there are some clear front-runners. On the Republican side that's Greg Gianforte who ran against Governor Bullock for that position last fall. And on the Democratic side, Amanda Curtis, state legislator from Butte, and her party's candidate for the U.S. Senate campaign a few years ago. And Rob Quist, who is a musician of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame, and I'd call them, kind of, co-front-runners on the Democratic side.
SM: Even though Greg Gianforte say he has the Republican nomination sewn up, State Senator Ed Buttrey, another candidate form Great Falls says not so fast:
"I absolutely don't think that he's got those electors locked up at this point, " Buttrey says. "I think he did at the very beginning of the process, but he doesn't any more."
SM: Maybe Rob there will be some suspense at the Republican meeting?
RS: Well, we'll know soon enough. Gianforte for weeks has been saying that it's a done deal, that he's got it all locked up, and until this week in that interview Eric Whitney did with Buttrey, nobody has pushed back on that. This is the first time we've seen somebody challenge that assertion. It'll be interesting to see whether there's actually anything there because Gianforte is still totally maintaining that it's a done deal and that this thing is gonna be a coronation. But I've long thought that if there was to be an alternative to Gianforte, that Buttrey would be the natural person to fill that role. Because there are a lot of contrast between the two. Gianforte of course, is a political outsider with no experience in public office. He touts his success as an entrepreneur and says it'd be good to have a non-politician fill that role. He's also, in my view, more ideological with strong connections to the Libertarian and socially conservative wings of the Republican Party. Buttrey on the other hand is, I would say, a little bit more in the mold of Ryan Zinke. He has experience in the legislature. His record indicates that his approach to governing is what supporters would probably call more pragmatic, but maybe what critics would call less principled than someone like Gianforte. But in any event, there are some real contrasts at work here, and while I think we'd have to still clearly call Gianforte the front-runner for the nomination, it will be interesting to see if Buttrey emerges out of this crowded field as the anti-Gianforte alternative for Republican delegates to consider.
SM: Gianforte is so confident he's going to get the Republican nomination, he already has a TV ad airing, and here it is:
SM: I think he stole that message Rob, from Donald Trump.
RS: Well definitely the 'drain the swamp' bit. You know he talked last fall about not being beholden to special interests, so that's always been one of his things. But last fall, he ran that campaign basically trying to ignore Donald Trump, and this is a little bit of anther distinction between Gianforte and Buttrey. Like his friend Ryan Zinke, Buttrey was an early supporter of Donald Trump, and Gianforte really did try to keep his party's presidential candidate at arm's length. We've seen quite a shift, and of course, we see it in that ad. Now he fully embraces Trump, says he wants to go to Washington D.C. to stick up for the Trump agenda, and has even adopted one of Trump's slogans.
SM: There does seem to be more suspense on the Democratic side, and the party's executive Director Nancy Keenan thinks whoever is their nominee has a chance to win. They're rallying supporters to work for "blue no matter who."
"The 'blue no matter who' is basically calling all our activists and folks that've been involved since the election and at that point begin to talk about how we can mobilize people in their local communities. You know, knocking doors, making phone calls, talking to their neighbors," Keenan says.
SM: I think Keenan and other Democrats Rob are hoping for some buyers remorse about Donald Trump to boost their chances.
RS: Absolutely. I think they kind of smell some blood in the water. Not only that, the reaction against Donald Trump that we've seen nationally as well as here in Montana. Also the fact that they're probably going to be running against Greg Gianforte someone who they actually just beat a few months ago. And so I think that they do see this as a race where they could pull an enormous upset.
SM: It would be an upset I think, but Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann thinks Trump is still popular enough to give their candidate the clear edge.
"Well I think the choice for the voters is gonna be pretty clear. Donald Trump was favored in Montana very strongly just a few months ago. I believe those voters will be turning out again to support Trump's agenda," Essmann says.
SM: That might be true now Rob, but who knows by May?
RS: Well, yeah May is a long time off in terms of politics. But look, what Essmann says is basically correct. This state voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and with the exception of the governor's race, voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates from top to bottom. So Republican have to be considered the big favorite regardless of which nominees come out of these conventions.
SM: Chuck, Montana's Attorney General Tim Fox was in D.C. this week attending Donald Trump's address to Congress as a guest of Senator Steve Daines, and then showing up at Ryan Zinke's swearing-in ceremony. What are we to make of all that?
CJ: Hard to say Sally. Fox is the state's senior elected Republican and he has ambitions too. It's always been thought he was gearing up to run for governor in 2020 after Governor Bullock's term has expired, but I don't know exactly what his plans are. He is the Republican who show up at things in Montana, and we'll have to see where that goes
SM: And he's popular Rob.
RS: He is, he has a very good reputation. He certainly has strong conservative credentials. He does have, surprisingly, some popularity that extends beyond just conservatives, and kind of in a way that other Republicans in the state sometimes struggle to get. So he would be a formidable candidate if he decided to get in, and I think one of the things about that governor's election in a few years, there's just a great deal of uncertainly around that. There's a lot of thinking that Greg Gianforte, even if he goes back to Congress, will come back home to try to run for governor again. And so, for Fox, this election against Tester for the Senate, that could look quite appealing, and I think a lot of Democrats see him as maybe the most likely challenger to Tester and probably the most formidable one.
SM: As we've mentioned before, there are already some anti-Tester ads on the air as well, by some national groups who want to see a Republican take that seat.
RS: Right, yeah. Republicans see this as one of their best chances to take a seat currently held by Democrats. And Tester, for his part, is clearly in campaign mode too. They have really ramped-up their press releases, emails asking for money. Tester has introduced a whole bunch of legislation in recent days. So everybody's in campaign mode for sure.
SM: Back in Helena Chuck, the second half of legislative sessions have historically been the most contentious. And this session has been not all that contentious so far, but probably gonna run true to form do you think?
CJ: I think it will on budget and infrastructure for sure. So far, on infrastructure there is no real alternative plan to Governor Bullock's, but Republicans are working on one, and it will come before the appropriations committee, I believe, the following week. They're expected to divide some of his bills into multiple bills. The whole issue of whether they bond is still and issue. The Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen and the appropriations chair Nancy Ballance both said they weren't sure of the need to bond. The governor wants to bond to build some buildings and put some of the money in other places, so that'll be a big issue. But remember, the governor always get the final say, and he can do line-item vetoes. He can veto bills, so, even though Republicans control both houses, Bullock has an enormous amount of power in shaping what finally passes or doesn't.
SM: Well this is the time in the session where it's important to eat right and get lots of sleep.
"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.
Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.