With his kindergartner, second-grader and fifth-grader sitting in the front row, Gov. Steve Bullock devoted half of his State of the State speech to education — from early childhood to college and job training.
We look forward to hearing more about his “Stars to Quality” proposal to create high-quality early childhood programs that would help more Montana children get ready for kindergarten. The state doesn’t currently fund much in the way of preschool and early childhood programs.
In this column we have called on state leaders to support a college tuition freeze, to make post-secondary education more affordable for Montana families. Bullock talked Wednesday night about his support for a two-year freeze, but he will have to convince a legislative majority to fund it.
Bullock pitched the long-ranging building bond bill that would help fund long-needed renovation of the Science Building at Montana State University, as well as student facility projects in Bozeman, Butte, Havre, Missoula and Great Falls. The Billings Gazette, along with business, labor, university advocates, historians and economic development leaders from across the state, supported a similar building bill in 2011, but it was killed in the House.
Bullock asked the Legislature to invest in services to re-integrate returning military members into civilian life and college campuses, noting that a committee has already cut that funding.
The new Democratic governor was cordially received by a Legislature with a Republican majority in both chambers. He drew a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle on some points, including a grant program for communities affected by oil and gas development.
“I ask that we invest $15 million in providing matching funds to affected cities and towns that do not get a share of the increased revenues that county governments and school districts receive from oil and gas development,” Bullock said to loud applause.
Bullock needs to pay attention to Eastern Montana and Billings issues. The Bakken boom is a big one, but not the only development that gives our half of the state a different perspective.
The civility demonstrated in the Capitol on Wednesday night gives us hope that Bullock and Republican legislative leaders, including Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings and House Speaker Mark Blasdel of Somers, will work together. Compromise is the key to their success because they have big differences on some big issues.
There was no applause on the Republican side for Bullock’s call to make low-income adults eligible for Medicaid.
Republicans want a permanent reduction in state property taxes. Bullock wants to rebate $400 this year only to every Montana homeowner.
However, the governor drew bipartisan cheers when he spoke of protecting Montana’s elections from “dark money” groups that “refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent.”
Near the beginning of his speech, Bullock made three important requests of legislators:
- “First, be responsible with our budget because I won’t allow you to spend more than we take in or make cuts that undermine our long-term stability.
- “Second, join me in focusing on creating jobs, investing in education and making government more effective.
- “Lastly, act in a manner that we’re not ashamed to have our children watching.”
If Bullock and lawmakers can stick to those goals, prospects for Montana’s future will be brighter than ever.