HELENA — Hired as an $8-an-hour state budget analyst in 1973, Sen. Dave Lewis is winding down what may be an unparalleled career in Montana government.
Lewis has served in both legislative chambers, headed two executive departments and worked as state budget director under three governors.
“Forty of my 70 years I’ve been involved with Montana state government,” Lewis said in an interview Tuesday. “Who would have ever figured that?”
The Helena Republican completed his final regular legislative session last week. Barring a special session, that’s it for the longtime budget expert, although he’ll serve on interim committees.
Lewis considered running for the state House in 2014, but said his wife, Karen, “who has way more sense than I do,” convinced him that it’s time to hand off the torch to someone else.
“I kind of want to leave when I feel I’m still doing a good job,” Lewis said. “I’ve just really been honored to do what I’ve been able to do.”
He said he wants to spend more time with his family, including nine grandchildren, and farm at his place in the valley.
It’s been quite a ride.
Lewis was the budget director under Democratic Gov. Ted Schwinden and Republican Govs. Stan Stephens and Marc Racicot.
He was director of the departments of Administration (under Gov. Thomas L. Judge) and Social and Rehabilitation Services, part of what’s now the Department of Public Health and Human Services, under Schwinden.
Lewis was the executive director of the Montana Board of Investments under several governors.
Lewis served two terms in the House and chaired the House Appropriations Committee in a special session.
In 2004, Lewis lost a race for lieutenant governor on a Republican ticket headed by Bob Brown. They lost to Brian Schweitzer and John Bohlinger.
Appointed to the Senate in 2005, Lewis served in five sessions and headed the Finance and Claims Committee in 2011. His Senate district covered parts of six counties, stretching nearly 300 miles, from Lavina to Ovando.
Lewis and his family settled in Helena because they were tired of moving frequently when he worked in finance for the Forest Service.
He took the job in the Montana budget office in the fall of 1973 but wasn’t planning to stay long. With a wife and three children, Lewis said he was looking for a better-paying job.
“I really was trying to get on with the smelter (in East Helena),” Lewis said. “That was the best job in town. I had worked at smelters in Idaho.”
He wound up staying in state government until 2000, retiring as Racicot’s budget director after an accident in which he lost an eye. He was elected to the House that year.
“I had worked with all of those old guys — Bill Groff, Francis Bardanouve, Matt Himsl and Norris Nichols,” Lewis said, referring to earlier legislative budget experts. “I thought I’d like that. I could still do some farming.”
As for major accomplishments, Lewis said he’s proud that he was part of a group as budget director that advised Racicot to proceed with bonding for the renovation of the Capitol and later worked to get the Marysville Road paved.
“I’ve been mainly involved with the budget,” he said. “You don’t make a lot of friends.”
His own politics evolved over the years, from being apolitical to Democratic to Republican.
“I kind of got involved with the Republicans,” Lewis said. “It was no great leap to run as a Republican for the Legislature.
“I’m a way more conservative person than I was 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago. I’m concerned about the ability of government to do all things for everybody. The private sector should be allowed to do more.”
Lewis said he’s not a formal Tea Party member, but added, “I understand where they’re coming from.”
He remembered talking to legislative budget leaders in 1974 about the general fund budget and “they were just amazed we were spending $100 million and they couldn’t imagine how we could sustain it.”
It now will exceed $1.7 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Lewis said much of the growth since then has been in three areas: increases in the state match for Medicaid, salaries and benefits for state employees, and school funding.