HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock unabashedly pitched his Democratic administration’s signature proposals Wednesday night in his first State of the State address, from education funding to tax rebates to expanded health coverage for the poor.
Yet while Bullock called on state lawmakers to band together to pass an agenda he said would create a “brighter future” for Montana’s children and citizens, he often saw an audience where Republicans sat on their hands while Democrats wildly cheered Bullock’s proposals.
“If we accept that this is more about (our children’s) generation than ours, we will enter this building every day committed to creating even greater opportunities than we had,” Bullock said. “Join me in focusing on creating jobs, investing in our education and making government more effective.”
Bullock, who took office less than four weeks ago, delivered his 40-minute address to a packed House chamber in the state Capitol and a statewide television and radio audience, primarily on public broadcasting stations.
Other statewide elected officials were in the audience, joining most of the 150 members of the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.
Bullock, 46, won a close, hard-fought election last year for governor against Republican Rick Hill, prevailing with about 49 percent of the vote to Hill’s 47 percent.
He spent much of Wednesday night’s speech promoting his education initiatives, including a freeze of state college tuition, an ambitious building plan for the state’s two-year and four-year campuses and expanded early-childhood education programs.
But he didn’t shy from urging lawmakers to approve programs he knows face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Legislature, like the multimillion-dollar expansion of Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income citizens without health insurance.
“It’s time we set politics aside on this issue,” he said. “Politics won’t treat diabetes. Extremism won’t create jobs. And intransigence won’t provide health care for those who can’t afford it.”
Democratic lawmakers responded with a long, standing ovation, while Republicans in the chamber sat and didn’t applaud.
“This is an opportunity to reduce costs and expand access to quality health care for nearly 70,000 more Montanans,” he said of the expansion, which would be financed almost entirely by federal funds. “If we fail to act, Montana taxpayer dollars will be used to provide health care to the citizens of states thousands of miles away, while our rates will continue to go up, year after year.”
On some themes, however, Bullock’s speech drew loud applause from both political sides of the aisle.
He announced that state budget information would be posted online as of Thursday — a Republican proposal that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed two years ago.
He asked to maintain funding for a program that helps returning veterans integrate back into civilian life and college campuses, to create a fund helping eastern Montana communities deal with the impacts of oil-and-gas development, and to pass a bill ensuring that Montana workers get preference on state-financed construction projects.
Yet many of the speech’s major points laid bare the stark differences between Bullock and the Legislature’s Republicans, who control the Senate 29-21 and have a 61-39 margin in the House.
On taxes, Bullock urged passage of his proposed $400-per-homeowner rebate and business-equipment tax elimination for small- and mid-sized businesses — while deriding proposals from Republicans for across-the-board property tax cuts.
“Some disagree with me,” the governor said. “They believe we’d be better off if we focused on helping multinational corporations that have their headquarters in Pennsylvania, a P.O. box in Delaware, bankers in New York and Wall Street and lobbyists in Helena and Washington, D.C. …
“Let’s never allow misinformation to be the motivation for missteps — let’s evaluate tax rebates and cuts with our eyes wide open.”
He said he’d asked for “full funding” of an economic development program for Native Americans in Montana and noted that a legislative budget panel already had cut the funding in half, and said if the Legislature is serious about creating jobs for all Montanans, it should restore that funding and make it permanent.
He also spoke of campaign reform, saying he fought to “stem the tide of this corporate money in our elections,” and asking the Legislature to help him change state law to force disclosure of who’s spending money in campaigns.
Some Republicans eventually stood and joined Democrats in applauding when Bullock said he wanted to “guarantee that our elections will never be auctions, controlled by anonymous bidders.”
Some Republicans also were slow to join Democratic applause for Bullock’s so-called “jobs bill,” a $100 million proposal to finance building projects primarily on Montana campuses across the state.
“Let’s stand together with me and the more than 2,500 construction workers we want to put to work building world-class schools for our world-class workforce,” Bullock said.