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Montana's GOP leadership tested as end of legislative session nears

Montana's GOP leadership tested as end of legislative session nears

  • Updated

HELENA — The seemingly solid Republican majority that swept into the Montana Legislature after huge election wins last fall is showing some signs of cracking as the session enters its final leg.

With an overwhelming majority in the House and a significant one in the Senate, Republicans have tried to use their numbers to push through fiscally and socially conservative bills. But GOP leaders have been tested in keeping their caucus together amid contentious debate over large budget cuts and some of the more far-right social proposals.

The screws will only tighten as the end of the session looms.

Republican leaders are trying to hold the line on their core issues while distancing themselves from the more controversial bills.

"Our focus was growing jobs and the economy and creating opportunity, and it's not that these other bills are not important, I mean every legislator has their own focus," said Senate President Jim Peterson R-Buffalo about the Republican bills that have been stopped recently.

"But as a majority, as a team both in the House and the Senate, that is what we agreed to focus on and we are refocusing right now," the Buffalo Republican said.

Reaction to some of the bills backed by Republicans has ranged from puzzlement to outright mockery. Measures that have been tabled include a bill that would have stated global warming is good for Montana, another that would have required federal agents to obtain written permission before making an arrest or search and one to require presidential candidates to produce a valid birth certificate.

Other measures have lingered until GOP leaders intervened.

In one case, the Legislature held hours of hearings on a bill to overturn a Missoula city ordinance that protects gay rights. The hearings drew lines of testimony that stretched out the door.

After the bill cleared the House and made its way out of a Senate committee, the measure was buried with GOP leadership's approval and appears likely to die in committee.

In another measure, Republicans drew weeks of attention for a proposed declaration of states' rights that critics called a veiled threat at state secession. The bill lost steam in committee with both Peterson and Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann R-Billings opposing it.

Supporters of those bills say the concerns are overblown and GOP leaders are trying to save face because of the negative public perception.

"All they are trying to do is preserve the dignity of the party," Rep. Bill Harris R-Mosby said who has supported many of these conservative initiatives.

The Republican caucus also has shown fissures over standing behind the party's conservative budget proposal that Republican leaders have said is needed for practical and ideological reasons.

When the Senate floor took up the state budget bill last week, Democrats launched withering attacks accusing Republicans of hurting Montanan citizens with unnecessarily deep budget cuts.

After hours under siege, small chinks began to show in the GOP armor. First Republicans passed a $15 million amendment to increase funding to Medicaid workers. Then, when some Senate Republicans broke ranks and gave $34,000 to a school for the blind and deaf, leadership had seen enough.

Republicans paused floor proceedings and called a party meeting, marshaling the rank-and-file to stand firm and not give into the Democrats emotional entreaties.

In the House, some Republicans also chafed under complete restructuring of the state's budget by the party, but like in the Senate, leadership held firm.

When Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, brought an amendment to change party plans on how lodging taxes were distributed, a party meeting was called and Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, asked representatives to stay strong on the important but uncomfortable cuts.

As the session comes to a close, the party's leadership will be tested more and more to hold strong to its original plan.

Essmann said the party has every expectation of reaching its goals of passing a conservative budget and addressing the most important issues before the Legislature.

But struggles in meeting party goals was illustrated by Essmann's own proposal to overhaul the medical marijuana industry, which failed in the Senate Wednesday night and is opposed by GOP leaders in the House who want to see an outright repeal of the medical marijuana law.

"The Legislature, just by its nature, you've got 150 individuals they don't always share the same vision and the same goals," Essmann said.

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