HELENA — Triumphant Republican legislators on Wednesday picked a pair of soft-spoken farmer-ranchers from central Montana as their leaders for the 2011 Legislature, electing Rep. Mike Milburn of Cascade as House speaker and Sen. Jim Peterson of Buffalo as Senate president.
The two leaders will take office Jan. 3 when the 2011 Legislature convenes.
In separate party caucuses, both men vowed to cut state spending and the size of state government and reduce taxes to expand the state's economy. Milburn also called for standing up for state's rights.
“We've got to stand up to an overreaching federal government,” Milburn told fellow House Republicans. “I'm talking about Obamacare, wolves, national monuments and our environmental regulations.”
Republicans picked up 18 House seats in the Nov. 2 election to forge a huge 68-32 majority in 2011. On the Senate side, Republicans gained one seat to widen their majority to 28-22 over Democrats.
Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, was elected House majority leader, while Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, was chosen as Senate majority leader.
The majorities in both chambers give Republicans control of the Legislature for the first time since 2003. It's also the first time in 20 years that the Legislature has been controlled entirely by a party different than the governor, this time with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
For the House speaker's post, Milburn defeated Rep. Krayton Kerns of Laurel, who billed himself as the Tea Party's choice for the post and gave a fiery speech seeking the job.
“State government must become so small we don't even know it is there,” Kerns, a veterinarian, told his caucus.
He called on lawmakers to re-establish the constitutional balance of power between states and the federal government, saying: “We have to exert our control. Unconstitutional acts like Obamacare must be nullified. They must be nullified immediately.”
Milburn, a retired Air Force pilot, told the House Republicans that he also is a strong conservative, citing his family's background and history of serving in the military.
“This election sent a clear message,” Milburn said. “America looked socialism in the eye, and they said 'We're scared.' They said we need to stop doing just about everything Washington's been doing the last few years. We need to stop the takeover of our economy. We need to stop the takeover of our health care. And we need to stop the politics that reward failure and punish success, and we need to do it now.”
Milburn, 58, put up large poster boards showing state budget and revenue trends.
“We need to spend less as a government,” he said. “We need to make it more efficient and more effective. We need to change fundamentally the way we've been doing government.”
By cutting spending, the Legislature will have more money available to reduce property taxes on business equipment and homes, he said.
In the Senate Republican caucus, shortly after being elected by an unanimous vote, Peterson, his voice breaking with emotion, said, “It's hard to stand here, as I see myself as just a cowboy from central Montana.”
Peterson, 64, said Montanans' top priority is for government to live within its means and to expand the economy, using all of the state's resources, including its people.
“We are going to do our best to build the future by expanding Montana's economy,” he said.
Citing the rush of the holiday season, the new Senate president canceled plans to have meetings around the state about Schweitzer's proposed budget.
However, Peterson said the Legislature will schedule “special hearings” on the budget the first week of the session so more lawmakers can learn about it, instead of just small legislative subcommittees.
Schweitzer's budget appears to use $170 million of one-time money to balance the budget, which is something Peterson said he wants to scrutinize.
He said Republicans agree with Schweitzer's plan to reduce the property tax on business equipment, but said they don't want to shift it to other business owners or homeowners.
Peterson voiced disappointment that Schweitzer's budget doesn't address the “huge, growing deficit of the state employee retirement funds.” He wasn't sure what the Legislature would do about it, but said lawmakers will address it.