HELENA – The Legislature’s new Republican majority leaders outlined the GOP’s agenda Wednesday, saying they’d focus on tax relief, boosting the state’s economy and revising education — but they also said they want to work with incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Steve Bullock.
“We look forward to a fresh start and a good beginning,” said incoming Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “We want to work in a positive fashion to address (the) issues that we think are key in Montana.”
House Speaker-elect Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said the focus will be jobs and the economy — “anything we can do to facilitate job growth and open the door to new businesses, and the businesses that are here now.”
Essmann, who won a razor-close vote against current Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, to become Senate president for the 2013 Legislature, outlined four issues that are tops for Senate Republicans: balance the state budget, demand “government accountability,” provide “permanent tax relief” that will help business, and ensure that the state’s school system “rewards and expects achievement from its students.”
It’s time for lawmakers from both political parties to sit down and work on issues that are important to Montana, Essmann said.
Republicans have a 29-21 majority in the Senate and a 61-39 advantage in the House. In last week’s election, the GOP increased their edge by one in the Senate and lost seven seats in the House.
Essmann said he looks forward to meeting with Bullock, a Democrat, although they have not yet had that opportunity.
Republicans often have had a tempestuous relationship with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who last session vetoed numerous Republican bills.
Essmann said he believes there are issues on which Republican legislative leaders and Bullock can find common ground, particularly on the economy.
Legislative leaders are eager to see Bullock’s specific proposals for the state, he said.
“Obviously, it’s only been eight days since the election,” Essmann said. “We’ll be bringing forward our proposals as well. And we hope to have an open and honest communication between both sides of the aisle in the Senate and with the House as well and, of course, with the executive branch.”
Blasdel said Republicans feel they can work with the governor without having to compromise their principles, and have a “constructive conversation.”
Another big issue will be how to deal with oil-and-gas development in Eastern Montana, and its impact on local governments and schools, GOP leaders said.
Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, the incoming House speaker pro tempore, said Eastern Montana is happy to pay its share of oil-and-gas taxes, but that state government needs to “help us maintain the machine” of development.
“The more success they have, the more success the whole state has,” Blasdel said.