The newly elected Montana Legislature on Wednesday voted in leadership for the upcoming session that starts Jan. 2.
This year will be the first time a party — Republicans in this case— hold a supermajority in the modern configuration of the Legislature. Republicans won 68 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 seats in the state Senate in the Nov. 8 election.
In the upper chamber, Republicans elected Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton to serve as Senate president, Sen. Ken Bogner of Miles City as Senate pro tempore and Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls to be majority leader.
Ellsworth and Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell were both nominated for Senate president.
In his speech, Ellsworth touted his experience as senate pro tempore during the last session.
"My philosophy is the same as it was last session, which is, we all have the same agenda, pass good legislation, work together, have a united caucus," he said.
People are also reading…
Ellsworth also raised the prospect of the GOP using its supermajority to pass constitutional referendums that would then appear on the 2024 ballot. The supermajority allows Republicans to pass referendums without Democratic votes.
"Now we’re going to have an opportunity next session, because we’re going to have a supermajority, to potentially pass constitutional initiatives and give those votes to the people and what they deserve," he said. "That’s a real opportunity that has never happened before. I want to make sure we’re responsible with that opportunity, we handle it the way people want to see it, and we pass and potentially put things on the ballot that people want to see."
Sen. Keith Regier cautioned against the Legislature ceding too much power to executive branch agencies, which are under Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, while noting that the design of the body is to send everyday Montanans to Helena.
"There are basically two reasons I want to be your president," he said. "One, your legislation, that will be a priority for me. Two, strengthen the legislative branch."
Republicans also elected Sens. Tom McGillvray, Steve Hinebauch, Dennis Lenz and Barry Usher as whips.
In the House, the GOP picked Rep. Matt Regier, from Kalispell, as speaker. Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, of Culbertson, is speaker pro tempore. Rep. Matt Regier is Sen. Keith Regier's son.
In his speech, Matt Regier pitched himself as the candidate best able to unite a caucus that has fractured along ideological lines in past sessions.
“My promise to you as speaker is that everybody has a voice,” he said. “One legislator should not be allowed to be louder than the next. We all get to be heard.”
Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, seen as more closely aligned with the more moderate Republican members, was nominated by Dillon Rep. Tom Welch. Knudsen also offered a conciliatory tone in his speech to the caucus.
“The people in this room agree far, far more than we disagree,” he said. “… But at the end of the day we must all commit to coming together to further conservative policies in the state of Montana, for the people of Montana.”
In an interview after the vote, Regier said he felt that improving lines of communication would go a long ways toward uniting his caucus.
His predecessor, outgoing Rep. Wylie Galt, was seen as attempting to bridge the divide by appointing committee chairs that represented both the more moderate, “Solutions Caucus” members and the caucus’s hard-line conservatives. Regier declined to say whether he would adopt that approach.
“I’m going to look at who’s best for what job,” he said. “We’ll have differences, and depending on the issue, but … I don’t believe in sides within the Republican caucus.”
One of the most influential members of the so-called “Solutions Caucus” within the House Republicans is Conrad Rep. Llew Jones. Speaking after the vote, he said that while the Speaker position went to the more hard-line nominee this time, he believes his bloc of Republican lawmakers can still wield enough votes to maintain its leverage.
“While we’ll never know, as a person that counts votes, I always knew it was going to be plus or minus two votes,” Jones said, referring to the caucus’s policy of not publicly disclosing the vote tallies. “But now the dance is now to be danced. It will be a function of how well the blocs come together again.”
House Republicans re-elected Rep. Sue Vinton of Billings as majority leader and Rep. Rhonda Knudsen of Culbertson as House pro tempore. Republicans also voted for Reps. Terry Moore, Brandon Ler, Steve Gist, Neil Duram, Jennifer Carlson and Denley Loge to serve as whips.
Democrats picked Sen. Pat Flowers, of Belgrade, to lead them in the Senate and re-elected Rep. Kim Abbott, of Helena, to lead them in the House.
Flowers said he was committed to his fellow Senate Democrats, who some later referred to as “The Sweet 16,” as there are 34 Republicans in the 50-member Senate.
He said he was willing to be minority leader as a service to the caucus and the state of Montana and was not aspiring to higher office.
“There are Montanans who are counting on us,” he said. “There are Montanans who are worried about their privacy. There are Montanans who are worried about if they can pay their bills day to day. There are Montanans who can’t find a place they can afford to live. There are business owners that can’t find employees for that very reason.
“For all those reasons they are counting on us to deliver solutions so they can continue to live in Montana, raise a family in Montana and enjoy all the amenities that brought them here in the first place,” Flowers said.
In her speech before being elected, Abbott said that while in the minority, Democrats represent more than 300,000 Montanans in their districts and others in areas where Republicans took legislative seats.
“We have a lot of responsibility. The administration is Republican. The supermajority in both chambers is Republican. They have a responsibility to lead and govern and we have a responsibility to hold them accountable for the policies that they’re moving, the priorities they’re articulating, and the damage they’re doing. We have to offer our alternatives.”
State Rep. Marilyn Marler, of Missoula, ran against Abbott in the House Democrats’ leadership election. In her speech, she said Democrats needed to be more vocal in a session where the party won't “be in a position to broker a lot of deals.”
“Last session our caucus had a strong focus on staying quiet, and people noticed our silence across the state,” Marler said. “I want to reiterate that our communities sent us here to stand up for our shared values.”
In the Senate, Sen. Susan Webber, of Browning, and Sen. Shannon O'Brien, of Missoula, were elected senate minority whips.
In the House, Rep. Derek Harvey, of Butte, was elected to a second term as whip, along with Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, of Browning; and Rep. Katie Sullivan, of Missoula. Rep. Alice Buckley, of Bozeman, will be Democratic caucus chair.