HELENA — Republican legislative leaders praised Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for agreeing to put the state budget online, starting Thursday, but disagreed on a number of other issues in his State of the State address.
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, told Montana PBS afterward that he was pleased Bullock agreed to do something Republicans have tried to do for years — letting Montanans go online to see how state tax dollars are being spent. The 2011 Legislature passed a bill to require that, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it.
House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, praised the “nice tone” of Bullock’s speech.
“Obviously, he laid out a little more of his agenda,” he said. “We’ll have to take a look at specifics and work from there.”
On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, of Butte, said Bullock has been very consistent in laying out his agenda over the months and appreciated the governor’s emphasis on jobs and the economy.
“I think he really laid out some very good proposals for us to make that happen,” Sesso said. “And now it’s time for us to get the job together and come together.”
GOP leaders, meanwhile, highlighted some of their differences on other issues with Bullock.
“What I did hear was a lot of proposals for new spending and a lot of new spending,” Essmann said. While the Montana economy is growing, “we must proceed with caution,” he said.
As for Bullock’s proposal to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance to 70,000 more low- and middle-income Montanans, Republicans were wary. The federal government will finance most of the program in the early years, but the state would eventually have to pick up a fraction of the costs.
“Obviously I think Republicans are skeptical of Medicaid expansion and the long-term costs to the taxpayers when the federal government has to get the house in order,” Blasdel said.
Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, who delivered the broadcast GOP response to Bullock’s speech, struck a similar theme.
“Washington, D.C., has proven it is incapable of living within its means,” Knudsen said. “We can’t trust D.C. to keep its promises, and we need to be very conservative in making new commitments going forward.”
Knudsen also disagreed with Bullock’s plan for providing homeowners with a one-time, $400 property tax rebate at a cost of $100 million.
While Republicans agree about the need to find opportunities to return excess revenues to taxpayers, Knudsen said, “but what about all the people who pay taxes, but don’t own a home? ... Every single Montanan deserves tax relief. No one should be left out.”
Essmann said he hopes Bullock and Republicans can reach across party lines to further reduce the state’s property tax on business equipment.
Knudsen said Bullock had joined the Republican “chorus to offer Montana’s businesses relief from this burdensome tax.”
As for Bullock’s proposed two-year tuition freeze at state colleges and universities, Blasdel said Republicans want the universities “to show how they’ve created efficiencies in their system to save students money.”
As for Bullock’s call to clean up Montana elections and to not allow undisclosed, out-of-state money to influence races here, Blasdel said that he thought the two sides would keep working on that issue this session.
“Obviously we want to have clean fair elections and make sure that citizens have an opportunity to see who’s supporting candidates,” the House speaker said. “I think we’ll be able to come together on that as well.”
Knudsen called for the state to support “natural resource development in Eastern Montana by providing money for water and sewer systems, housing, roads and law enforcement.
Republicans intend to fix the problems with the state pension system, he said. Bullock has his own plan for repairing the systems, which have a combined potential shortfall topping $4 billion.
Knudsen said Republicans are “committed to a solution, not a Band-Aid and not a quick fix for the sake of political expediency.”
He said Montanans overwhelmingly agree that “we cannot simply keep throwing money at the problem, handing out bailouts to a broken system.”