Republican lawmakers picked leaders of the state House and Senate Wednesday, retaining Senate President Scott Sales for a second session and electing Rep. Greg Hertz of Polson as speaker of the House.
Democrats, who are in the minority this session, voted to keep Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte in his leadership position from last session. Rep. Casey Schreiner of Great Falls was elected House minority leader.
Republicans decide the top leadership posts because they have majorities in both the House and Senate. While the Senate kept its leadership team intact from the 2017 session, the House faced a void to fill after the speaker from last session was termed out.
The majority party also emphasized the importance of this session as laying a groundwork for 2020, when Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will be termed out from running again and the other four elected statewide offices will be on the ballot. A Democrat has been in the governor's office since 2005.
Sales, of Bozeman, fended off a challenge from his No. 2 in the last legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. Thomas was then re-elected as Senate majority leader.
Sales said he wanted to keep the leadership team together, build on the successes of the last session and lay the groundwork for Republicans to take back the governor’s office.
“It’s my hope that we can reverse the course that I had where I served one term with a Republican and seven terms with a Democrat governor,” Sales said in his acceptance speech. “We have the ability to do it and our work starts today.”
Hertz, who was the No. 2 in the House last session, called for unity in the caucus and ended up defeating Rep. Nancy Ballance, who told Republicans in the House that talking about unity would fall on deaf ears if the caucus didn't address what she called "uncomfortable truths."
In 2015, Republicans in the Legislature were hamstrung by a deep divide between more conservative and moderate members. Hertz said Wednesday that's in the rearview mirror and needs to stay there.
“I want to carry that unity forward to the 2019 session,” Hertz said. “The power of unity — we can work together, just like we did in the special session in 2017. We can work together and have great process for the people of Montana.”
Ballance, who ran against Hertz for speaker, said several members of the caucus want to keep three veteran lawmakers — who are freshmen in the House this year — in a lower position and not let them assume positions of power more in line with their years of experience. They are incoming Reps. Llew Jones of Conrad, Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, and Eric Moore of Miles City, who all have several terms under their belt, including roles in leadership and as key architects of the state budget.
“It’s fine to talk about unity but if we don’t address the issues in this room then we will be a caucus in name only,” Ballance said. “We got a freshman with six years in the House and another several in the Senate and how many on the Finance Committee? You want it put that guy in a box?” Ballance asked. “There is more knowledge and experience and capability in these three guys coming over from the Senate than you can possibly imagine. That is not a good strategy, it is not a winning strategy and it is not a unity strategy.”
Ballance, who also lost a bid for the No. 2 position in the House, majority leader, said if Republicans didn’t enter the session working well together, they would not be able to capitalize on the defeat of two ballot measures in the November midterm. Those measures included raising the tobacco tax to continue Medicaid expansion and a permit to new hard rock mines that would require a perpetual water treatment. Voters striking those measures down, Ballance said, gave Republicans a “monumental” opportunity.
The fight over Medicaid expansion is expected to dominate the 2019 session. Expansion passed here in 2015 and more than 100,000 Montanans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are covered under the program.
But expansion is set to end in the summer of 2019 and with the failure of the ballot measure (Initiative 185), it's up to the Legislature to either choose to extend or end the program. A large group of Republicans earlier this year signed onto a letter calling for work requirements for the program, signaling the start of what's expected to be a long debate.
Democratic leadership called for a protection of Medicaid expansion.
“Montanans might have pushed back on increasing taxes to cover (Medicaid) expansion,” Schreiner said, “but that doesn’t mean Montanans don’t believe in taking care of each other.”
Sesso said Wednesday that a balance between state mining and environmental concerns, Medicaid expansion and health care access are particular concerns this January.
“We have to act on that legislation regardless of the fate of (Initiative) 185,” Sesso said. “We have to do something. And I’m going to work with the Republican leadership and the Republicans in the Senate to forge an expansion bill that makes sense for everybody.”
Republicans stressed their prospects for 2020, saying coming through this session in a strong position will help the party at the ballot box in two years. In 2016, Republicans swept all statewide offices except the governor.
Sales said he thinks Republican lawmakers are the most united that he’s seen, and that he will run the Senate again in a fair, respectful manner. But, he said, the bruising four-way GOP primary for U.S. Senate that Matt Rosendale won before losing this month to Democrat Jon Tester reflected poorly on the party and showed that work needs to be done ahead of the 2020 elections.
“We gave all the sound bites that the Democrats needed to effectively campaign against our candidate, and Tester wins another squeaker,” Sales said.
Thomas was re-elected Senate majority leader after Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, declined to accept a nomination for the leadership post and nominated Thomas instead, saying he’s more qualified for the position.
“I agree with both Sen. Thomas, when he said that our next goal is to elect our next governor. I also agree with Sen. Sales, who said we had an excellent leadership team in place last session,” Olszewski said.
Thomas laid out a 10-point plan for the session, which he said he believes will be focused heavily on the budget, with the top goal of electing a Republican governor. He said the role of president needs to be more than “just running the show,” and he pledged to bring the Senate Republicans together.
“We need to unite. We need to elect a Republican governor,” Thomas said. “I think those things go hand in hand.”
Hertz's No. 2 in the House, Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula, also cast an eye toward 2020, saying “If we strengthen our caucus, we enhance our opportunity to select and elect a Republican governor in 2020.”
— Reporters Mike Woodel of the Helena Independent Record and Amy Beth Hanson of the Associated Press contributed to this report.