The "Capitol Talk" panel recaps the State of the State, talks about the state of the budget, and notices that both Amanda Curtis and Greg Gianforte are trying to tie their congressional campaigns to Donald Trump. Can the enthusiasm on display at the women's march be translated into real action for change? Sally Mauk and Rob Saldin discuss the week in Montana politics on this episode of "Capitol Talk."
Sally Mauk: Welcome to our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Our colleague Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson is unable to join us this week. He'll be back next week.
Rob, Governor Bullock gave his third State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature this past week, and I think just in terms of delivery, it was his most confident and passionate address that he's every given, that I've seen.
Rob Saldin: Stylistically, yeah, I think it was very solid. You know, public speaking hasn't always been a strength of Bullock's, but he has grown into the job in this regard. I thought this was also evident last fall in the debates during the campaign — a real contrast from four years ago when the only way to characterize some of those performances would be as quite weak. So he just, as you say appears a lot more natural and confident in these settings now.
SM: Dealing with the state's budget deficit is front and center of course, and the governor, in part wants to raise taxes on Montana's wealthiest citizens to help make up revenue that his proposed cuts won't totally address. Here's what he had to say:
"It also doesn't make sense to me, or to most Montanans that someone making $9 an hour pays the very same tax rate as someone making $250 an hour. Increasing the top tax rate for any income over a half million dollars and other modest revenue proposals before you, are fair."
Fair or not Rob, the Republican majority is not likely to increase taxes on anyone.
RS: Yeah, they've made that clear. One thing that strikes me from the State of the State and just these first few weeks of the Legislative session is that there is broad agreement about the animating feature of this legislative session, and that is that we've had some steep and unexpected declines in state revenue. And one of the way that Bullock is suggesting that we deal with that is by a series of tax cuts. But for the Republicans, clearly that's a nonstarter.
SM: The governor also is pushing for funding for early childhood education and that's something else that's probably dead on arrival.
RS: One would certainly think so. I mean basically what the governor is proposing are a small series of increased funding for programs, but the brunt of his message is basically a number of targeted cuts to programs; a set of tax increases — targeted tax increases. And then he wants to replenish the rainy-day fund. That's basically what he's put forward. And up to this point, Republicans haven't been enthusiastic about much of that, even while they agree with the underlying issue that's at work. And we got a nice visual of the partisan divide on all these issues the other night when you could see the Democratic side repeatedly stand up and applaud throughout the governor's address while Republicans sat on their hands.
SM: It did appear that if the governor had said the sun will come out tomorrow, the Republicans would've still been seated.
RS: They would've been skeptical of that, absolutely.
SM: Well, one of the governor's most forceful statements in this speech was his pledge to keep public lands public:
"Let me be clear again: Do not send bills to my desk that suggest or start down the path of transferring our public lands out of public hands, because that won't happen, not on my watch."
SM: Rob, I think that was the only outright veto threat that the governor made in this speech.
RS: Right, it's an issue that featured prominently in the campaign last fall. It's one that I think works well for Bullock. And it's also one of the few issues that is separate from the overall budget thing, which is really commanding everyone's attention. There is a bill from Jennifer Fielder, a Republican of Thompson Falls ...
SM: Who is also the head of the American Lands Council.
RS: That's right, and I think that's what the governor was addressing here. I think it's still an open question about whether that bill could actually reach his desk, but in the event it does, he's clearly said he's not gonna sign it.
SM: House speaker Austin Knudsen gave and equally forceful Republican rebuttal to the governor, basically accusing the Bullock administration of ignoring the state's budget crises up until the legislature:
"His agencies are at the wheel of the ship of state, and ladies and gentlemen of Montana and of this room: that ship is heading towards and iceberg and the captain has been too busy listening to orchestra music and rearranging deck chairs to see the crash coming."
SM: Is that Titanic analogy fair Rob?
RS: Oh, I think it's overdone. I think everyone agrees that the state is in a little bit of a pinch here on the budget, but as we've talked about before, you look at other states and Montana is actually relatively in a pretty good position. But to Knudsen's larger point there, I think Republicans look at the budget situation and say 'hey, this wasn't something that inevitably had to happen.' Things, from their perspective, spiraled out of control on the governor's watch, and they like to point out that the Legislature is only in session for 90 days every two years. For the other six-hundred and however many days of each biennium, the governor is at the helm by himself and he's in charge. And they claim that he just stood by and did nothing while energy revenues in particular were tanking. And he was too busy running for re-election and trying to hide all this bad news than really deal with the situation as it was. And if he had been more proactive over the course of the last year in getting out ahead of this, we'd be in a better position that we are in right now.
SM: Speaker Knudsen also mysteriously announced he will sponsor legislation to help keep Colstrip units 1 and 2 open. They are scheduled to close by 2022 if not before then. And that would be welcome news to that community obviously.
RS: For sure. The devil is in the details. I think everyone's interested to see what exactly he has in mind. There's a lot of thought that there really isn't much that the legislature can do on this issue right now. One thing that's probably worth pointing out is that Colstrip has become symbolic in a way that goes beyond the details of policy. Especially for Republicans, but for a lot of Democrats too, emblematic of so much more. And so I think Republicans want to embrace that, and think this is a winning political issue. For them that is about Colstrip, but goes far beyond that.
SM: Outside of legislative news this week, Congressman Ryan Zinke's confirmation as the new secretary of the Interior was postponed to this coming week, or at least the committee vote on that. But he's still expected to be confirmed and we have more new candidates who hope to win his seat in Congress. One of those is Butte Democratic lawmaker Amanda Curtis, and she made her announcement in a video message that outlined what she has in common with Donald Trump:
"We agree that American needs to save Social Security. America needs to save Medicare. American needs to fight for affordable healthcare for all."
SM: She listed several other issues, but Rob this seems to me disingenuous at best, given that she and Donald Trump surely do not agree on how any of these things should be accomplished.
RS: We'll it's jarring and bizarre to hear a liberal Democrat embrace the platform of Donald Trump, to be sure. That said, it's also the case that Trump, in many regards, is most certainly not a conservative in any prior understanding of that term. And she does list a number of things that Trump has broke with decades of Republican orthodoxy on, and has moved to the left on. And so, at least in a big picture kind of way, there is some overlap between the Democrats and Trump. But I think obviously this one of those things where some of the ways in which Donald Trump might choose to pursue these things might be problematic from a Democratic perspective. I think what she was trying to do here was trying to embrace some of that populist spirit that Donald Trump was able to tap into on a national level and that we have a lot of here in Montana.
SM: And peel away some of the votes that he got, obviously, in Montana.
SM: On the Republican side, as expected, former gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte has officially jumped into he race for Congress. And he has to be the front-runner, not just for the Republican nomination, but to win the seat.
RS: Yeah, and in fact, in his email he claims to have all the votes already locked-up for the nomination. And assuming he gets that, he'll certainly be the favorite. And one other thing that struck me about his email to his supporters announcing his candidacy is that he also is embracing Trump 100%. Now during the campaign for governor last fall, he really kept Trump at arm's length. He would've preferred to have had Trump go away. But here in this email he talks about "draining the swamp." Another thing that struck me: he wrote in this email that he wants to — parroting Trump here — stop the terrible trade deals that have hurt our economy. And you know, that just stands out to me as really amazing to hear a conservative Republican say this because it's a 180 degree turn from what's been Republican orthodoxy on trade for many decades. And again, obviously it's consistent with President Trump's rhetoric, but traditionally it's been liberal Democrats, associated with big labor who have made this argument. Back in 1992 Bill Clinton distinguished himself as a different kind of Democrat by moving to the right on this issue and endorsing free trade, and that's how we got NAFTA. Obama also in this line supported free trade with the TPP deal. But that's always been contentious within the Democratic Party. Within the Republican Party though, they've very consistently been pro-trade. Well now Trump, and apparently conservatives like Gianforte have all the sudden adopted the old view held by liberal Democrats. It's just one of the clearest ways of seeing what a bizarre time we live in, in terms of a kind of re-sorting of these partisan and ideological positions.
SM: Lastly Rob, thousands of women, men and children turned out for the women's march in Helena last weekend. Far more than the organizers expected, in 9 degree weather I might add, to voice their support for human rights. And they feel those are rights that are gravely threatened right now, not just nationally, but also in Montana.
RS: For sure. And of course these marches went on all across the world, and generally saw larger numbers than were expected. And certainly for people on the left, I think brought a degree of hope in what has been a fairly hopeless-feeling few months. I guess looking forward, the two things that I wonder about are how sustainable this kind of thing is. It seems like there are two areas in which one might have questions. One would be organization. It's one thing to march in large numbers, it's quite another to actually enact actual change. Last week we talked a little bit about the Tea Party. Well one of the best books on the Tea Party was written by Theda Skocpol of Harvard, and one of her key takeaways is that the Tea Party people were amazingly effective at learning all of the mundane procedural rules of the American political system, and then undertaking the grunt-work of working within that system. Things like, for instance, how do you get people qualified to appear on the ballot. These kinds of things are not glamorous. It's not romantic stuff, but the basic point is that the Tea Party people were really good at process-oriented stuff, and that lead to some real tangible successes that mattered in terms of the makeup of Congress, in terms of the policy direction of the country. And so that is a very different way of proceeding than big, feel-good, symbolic, demonstrations. And it'll be interesting to see whether what we saw last weekend can be translated into actual tangible steps in those directions.
SM: Everyone I spoke to at the event said they planned to get involved in local actions, that they saw the march as the beginning of their activism and not an end in itself. In fact, this past week groups have gone to Sen. Daines office in Billings and Missoula to voice their concerns about things like the Affordable Care Act being repealed, and the president's cabinet choices, and so on. So there has been some follow up already.
RS: Yeah, and it'll just be interesting to see if that energy can be sustained over the long haul, especially when you get outside the realm of some of the kind of emotionally charged things like marches and demonstrations into the tedious, mundane details of trying to work within a system.
SM: Not as sexy as a march, for sure.
RS: Definitely not.
SM: Well you've been listening to "Capitol Talk," our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin. Our colleague Chuck Johnson will be back next week, and hopefully my cold will be gone by then too.
"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.