HELENA — Just after noon on Monday, Montana’s 150 legislators were sworn in as leaders in both the House and Senate made a call for Democrats and Republicans to work together and handle disagreements with civility.
At 11:58, a House clerk cut through the crowd of legislators and their family members, imploring everyone to take a seat so the 65th Montana Legislature could officially begin.
At a few minutes past noon in both chambers, the gavel hit the lectern and legislators were asked to “please come to order.”
Legislators and their guests recited the pledge of allegiance, bowed their heads in prayer and began roll call, each replying, “Here.”
“Mr. Secretary, 100 members are present,” the House Clerk said.
“Outstanding,” replied Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice swore in House members en masse, 100 right hands raised as they took their oath in unison.
Stapleton welcomed legislators and recounted the story of the Christmas truce, an unofficial ceasefire in World War I when enemy soldiers met in the battlefield between their trenches to celebrate what they had in common: the holiday, hobbies and sometimes hometowns.
"You all have been elected to Montana's house of conflict," Stapleton said, calling the session an opportunity to show “your dignity, your integrity, your humanity" in the wake of a divisive election cycle.
Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, likewise implored his colleagues to be civil and professional.
"We can disagree, and believe me we're going to disagree on this floor and in committee, but I expect those disagreements to be civil and professional," he said, noting legislators’ one constitutional requirement is to balance the budget. “We have tough decisions ahead of us.”
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, also called for her colleagues to be honest and courageous “to bridge the divide.”
“I appreciate we share a mutual commitment to uphold the dignity and decorum of this great institution,” she said.
In the Senate, Supreme Court Justice Laurie McKinnon swore in new senators just after noon in the Senate chamber as holdover senators watched. Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, took photos.
State Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe, D-Great Falls, was in attendance, though she announced last week she would resign to help her daughter care for newborn triplets.
In the Senate, leadership stressed a message of working together, while acknowledging that issues such as the state budget could be divisive.
After being named Senate president, Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said he was deeply humbled. He told senators he was committed to getting the Senate's business done “in an orderly, timely and efficient manner.” He pledged to treat all senators with “the fairness you deserve.”
Minority Leader Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, spoke after Sales and delivered a message of unity.
“The 50 individuals that sit in the Senate today … each represent 20,000 Montanans in a district of constituents that we are here to represent, our bosses,” Sesso said.
Sesso pledged cooperation with Sales and other Republicans, who picked up three Senate seats in the November election to to make it 32-18 and kept their majority in the House, 59-41.
Sesso looked around the room, saying that many senators know each other and have served together before. Of the 50, 16 Senators are new to the body, but of that number only five have not served in the Legislature before.
Sesso touched on the state budget, saying things are not as dire as some Republicans have indicated. Gov. Steve Bullock’s $4.7 billion budget, presented before the start of the session, makes more than $124 million in cuts and raises taxes on some groups.
“I urge the body to set aside our campaign rhetoric, set aside the ideology, set aside the notion that Montana is broke and widespread changes are needed and focus on what’s right in our state,” Sesso said.
The tone was different from House Republican leadership, who sees its majority, along with additional senate seats and wins in statewide races, as a mandate from voters.
“Stand proud in this session,” Majority Leader Ron Ehli said. While acknowledging his party must work with Democrats to serve the state, he urged them to “challenge the status quo” and to pressure the governor “more so than in the past” not to use his veto pen to undo policies that are “set by a true representation of Montana.”
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said Montana has an accessible, transparent Legislature and vowed to uphold that.
“There’s an issue of cooperation, we know that there. They’ll be some discussion on some of those issues, but we’ll figure that out. We’ll deal with things like the budget. The budget will come up, but we’ve got talent to deal with that,” Thomas said, looking at Sales and Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, of which Sesso is a member.
Thomas also said the Senate expects to deal with issues around health care and the Affordable Care Act, “given changes at the federal level.”
“Issues will be aplenty and we’ll debate those,” Thomas said. “As we debate those, let us work together to find the right solution. In the end we want to look to make Montana better.”
“You have my commitment, you have our caucus’ commitment to working together,” Thomas said.