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Republican schism still defining politics — and roiling tempers — at the Montana Legislature

Posted at 6:36 PM, Apr 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-30 00:38:12-04

HELENA — While most Montana lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock had good things to say about the outcome of Montana’s 66th Legislature last week, the session’s final moments also laid bare a political dynamic that still plays a crucial role in state politics: A split in the Republican Party, between harder-line conservatives and those more moderate.

In his final floor speech last Thursday, House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said the 58-member GOP majority is really “two separate minorities,” and he chastised Republicans who joined with minority Democrats to pass tax increases and other key legislation.

“Despite there being 58 Republicans in this chamber, we are not the majority,” he said. “Republicans, we should have held up against raising any taxes, which is our primary platform duty.”

GOP leadership in the House also essentially removed veteran Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance from a key fiscal committee, in the wake of her votes with the moderates on several important bills.

That move prompted Ballance to accuse leaders of sexism, for replacing her on the Legislative Finance Committee with a freshman male legislator from Billings.

“When a successful woman can be replaced by a freshman man, I think that is travesty,” she said from the House floor. “This sends a very poor message to our daughters, to our granddaughters and to every schoolgirl in this state.”

And, GOP leadership also attempted a last-minute power play Thursday to change legislative rules, to give them unprecedented control over actions by interim committees, which examine and vote on the direction of key issues between now and the 2021 Legislature.

The gambit was thwarted by Senate Democratic Leader Jon Sesso of Butte, who blocked it by moving to adjourn the session before the rules vote could take place. His motion was approved on a 25-24 vote — with all 20 Senate Democrats and five Republican senators in favor.

Just as they’ve done in previous legislative sessions dating back to 2007, minority Democrats and a cadre of moderate Republicans teamed up this session to pass major bills that were opposed by conservative Republicans.

Those bills included:

• The continuation of the $700 million-a-year Medicaid expansion program, which provides government-funded health coverage to 95,000 low-income adults in Montana.

The program would have expired June 30 without re-authorization by the Legislature. The Medicaid expansion bill was sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls and passed the House 61-35, with all 42 Democrats and 19 Republicans in favor. In the Senate, 20 Democrats and eight Republicans joined to pass it 28-22. In both votes, all of the “no” votes came from Republicans.

• Senate Bill 338, which authorized construction of a new $48 million Montana Historical Society museum and increased the state bed tax from 3 percent to 4 percent to help pay for it.

• The bill to authorize $80 million in state bonds to finance construction projects all across the state. Conservative Republicans had been able to defeat similar measures the previous several sessions, because it requires a two-thirds majority — but this year, the two-thirds majority was achieved.

• A bill raising fees on investment and financial advisers licensed in Montana, bringing in about $8 million a year. Most of the advisers are located out of state.

• Another bill increasing aviation fuel by 1 cent per gallon, to finance paving improvements at airports across the state.

When asked about the party schism last week, Republican leaders in the Senate put a good face on it, saying that party members are a diverse lot, and don’t always agree.

“Where we could agree, we agreed, and where we didn’t, we did it respectfully,” said Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman. “Very few people get everything they want, if any. It’s just part of the process.”

“Our thought process was let’s leave this session so that we’re all getting along, and when we disagree, we shake hands and move on and call it a day,” added Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville.

Thomas and Sales, who voted with conservatives on most key votes, chose to emphasize how Republicans worked together to pass business-friendly bills to help the economy, like a property-tax abatement for new rural broadband installation.

GOP House leaders voted against and spoke against many of the bills that passed with the Democrat-Republican coalition.

House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, also did not reappoint Ballance to the Legislative Finance Committee, which examines fiscal policy, instead choosing Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings.

Ballance, who had voted with conservatives often in prior sessions, chose to vote with the Republican-Democratic majority coalition on bills like Medicaid expansion and the museum bill.

After learning of her removal from the committee, Ballance stood on the House floor and objected, saying she had far more experience than Mercer.

“I have never played the `woman card’ and I don’t believe in that,” she said. “But I’m having difficulty understanding how a 40-year career in the finance industry, and four times leading the Appropriations Committee … why I would be replaced by a freshman legislator.”

Republican leaders also attempted, in the closing moments of the session, to change the legislative rules to allow them to break any tie votes on interim committees, which are split evenly between the parties. That power would give Republicans, particularly conservatives, the strength to influence future legislation in 2021 and block administrative rules from the Bullock administration.

Thomas made the motion on the Senate floor Thursday, catching Sesso and the Democrats off-guard. But Sesso then countered by moving to adjourn the session, and won on the 25-24 vote.

Tschida tried the same move on the House floor an hour later, but then withdrew it after discovering that the motion had failed in the Senate, rendering it moot.