This was opening day for the 64th session of the Montana Legislature. There was the usual pomp and circumstance, but there was also some real history being made.
Republican Debby Barrett of Dillon became the first woman to take the gavel as Senate president. She was selected by her Republican colleagues during caucuses back in November, but the full Senate made it official Monday on a unanimous voice vote.
Barrett suggested that the legislature has lost some of its stature, and she aims to rectify that.
“It is my goal to return the legislature to an equal footing with the other branches of government, and I hope everyone in this body will join me in this endeavor,” Barrett said.
Minority leader Jon Sesso struck the most non-partisan note of the day, encouraging his colleagues to engage in robust debate, but also imploring them not to question each other’s motives.
“I don’t think we should spend one minute trying to up one another on who cares more about jobs and the economy: we care more than you, you care more than us. Come on. We all agree that that’s our top priority."
Majority leader Matthew Rosendale was not so conciliatory. He ticked off a list of accomplishments he says the voters are asking for: a more predictable permitting process, wise natural resource use, more alternatives in public education, and so on.
“They ask to provide a sustainable health care system that they can both access and afford, and also they ask us to make sure we protect their personal liberties," said Rosendale.
As the Montana Senate was welcoming a new President, down the hall a new speaker was also taking over in the House. Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio was there.
Over in the House, there also was an atmosphere of collegiality on the first day. Republican and Democratic leaders rose to remind members to be civil and to respect one another during this Legislative session, especially on divisive issues.
House Speaker Austin Knudsen says members can disagree on issues without being disagreeable.
"Too often in the legislative process passions and emotions run high and the tendency is to dislike the legislator who dislikes your bill. I encourage each of you to resist the impulse to get personal, but instead use the disagreements as a means to sit down together and have a civil discussion about the issue."
The Republican from Culbertson says that’s what Montanans expect from their lawmakers. Knudsen says his role as speaker will be to advise and help all Representatives.
"To that end I encourage each of you to come to me with your goals for the session," Knudsen said. "Let me help you in making your goals a reality. Communicate with me and I will do my utmost to communicate with you. We’re all elected here to do the MT people’s work and that will only happen if we work together in a respectful, civil manner."
It’s a sentiment echoed by House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter. He says Democrats are looking forward to working with the Republican majority.
"I really believe that we have much more in common than separates us. We care deeply about many of the same things liberty, equality, community, prosperity. Those are things that we share. So let’s chose to work together for those things that we commonly value."
Later at a press conference, Hunter outlined the legislative priorities for House and Senate Democrats; ideas which have already received the cold shoulder from many Republicans.
These include the governor’s early childhood education proposal, Medicaid expansion, as well as for campaign finance reform, voting rights, and keeping public lands public.
Republicans have issued their own written action plan that includes growing Montanans' incomes, rein in the state budget, and a proposal for charter schools.
While there’s partisan wrangling on these and other issues both sides say they’re open to compromise.