Laura Lundquist
(Missoula Current) A Democratic gubernatorial candidate wants to help residents get their Montana back.On Wednesday night, about 30 people milled about in the lower level of the Trail Head Outdoor Gear Store while a tall, bearded man dressed in a navy-blue sweater and ball cap strode up to each small group and introduced himself as Ryan Busse. Most of the people were members of either the Montana Conservation Voters or Venery, a local women’s hunting organization, so conservation was a recurring topic.

After a while, Busse and state Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, climbed the stairs above the crowd to hold a question-and-answer session on what the participants might expect from Busse should he become Montana’s next governor. Busse thinks his chances are good, mainly because he’s “lazer-focused” on Montana issues that almost everyone cares about, regardless of political stripe.

Busse cited results from a poll released Wednesday by Emerson College Polling/The Hill, which showed 37% of Montanans approve of the job Gianforte is doing while the same percentage disapproves, including 16% of Republicans. But 41% of respondents said they think Montana is on the wrong track, compared to 31% who said it is on the right track.

“This is a very winnable race. The stuff we are running on - access to an equal education, access to public lands, a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body - these are centrist things that all Montanans believe in. These are 85% issues; I’ll take them to any community in this state,” Busse said. “This state has to be governed for Montanans, not for this billionaire class that wants to turn it into some sort of Texas rental thing that I’m not down with.”

The questions Busse answered weren’t preselected - they were either pulled from a box of questions people had written minutes before or people merely raised their hands - and he pointed out that his opponent, Gov. Greg Gianforte, doesn’t take questions.

The questions raised Wednesday ranged from the housing crisis, the marijuana tax money to education, wildlife and the environment. Many of Busse’s answers reflected his support for the Montana Constitution and its protections for privacy, an equitable education and a clean and healthful environment.The housing crisis was a high-interest issue for the crowd. Lower income families, those of nurses, teachers, firefighters and other important community workers, are struggling to find or keep affordable housing as property values and property taxes keep rising. On Wednesday, a Gallatin Association of Realtors study found the median price for a single-family home in the greater Bozeman area is currently $979,500. The median in Seattle is $52,000 less.

Busse said his team hasn’t developed a plan to deal with housing issues at the state level, partly because he doesn’t want to take control from city and county governments, which have tools such as zoning to deal with housing issues. He criticized the Montana Legislature Republican supermajority for passing bills that changed what was allowed in areas with certain zoning or prevented cities from being able to use zoning as they saw fit.

The one thing Busse said he would do is reduce the property tax, an action he says the Legislature and Gianforte could have taken, instead of giving tax breaks to the rich and then offering property tax rebates to Montana homeowners as long as they knew how to apply.


Before the 2023 session, the Montana Department of Revenue sent a Nov. 17 memorandum to all legislators warning that the reappraisal of property values would result in a 43% increase in residential property taxes, while commercial property tax would increase 16%. The law requires the Department of Revenue to suggest a tax rate that would be “neutral,” compensating for the increases, and the department suggested dropping the residential rate to 0.94% from 1.35%. Legislators could have passed a short bill reducing the rate but didn’t.

Instead, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, the 2023 Legislature passed several bills signed by Gianforte that together gave $1.5 billion in tax cuts to the wealthy, big business and temporary tax rebates over the 2025 and 2027 biennia. The biggest, ongoing income tax cut gave the wealthiest 1% of Montanans around $6,000 in tax cuts on average, while those with incomes near and below the median received less than $100 on average.

Busse also criticized the Republican supermajority for passing bills that would affect Montana’s environment, such as House Bill 971, an 11th-hour bill that prohibits the Department of Environmental Quality from conducting any analysis of greenhouse gas emissions prior to issuing permits.

Busse’s two boys were plaintiffs in the recent Held v. State of Montana climate change lawsuit, where a judge ruled that Montana’s Constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment required the state to consider how state-permitted projects contribute to climate change.

Another big problem for Busse has been the incremental privatization of Montana’s wildlife, backed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, all of whom are Gianforte appointees. Prior to 2021, Montana had one of the leading wildlife agencies that adhered to the North American Model, which condemns the commercialization of any wildlife resource because wildlife is publicly owned as part of the public trust. Busse also wants more Habitat Montana money to go to conservation easements and even fee-title land for wildlife. But since 2021, the Legislature and the administration have chipped away at Montana’s legacy.

“Gianforte has wiped the slate clean and appoints all these new commissioners and they start doing the bidding of out-of-state billionaires. They’re marching down the trail very fast, frighteningly, dangerously fast, toward commercializing our wildlife,” Busse said. “It’s going to ruin the very essence of this very egalitarian idea that Montanans have where I don’t care how much money you make, when you get into a raft on the river, everyone’s equal. When you put your boots on to go elk hunting, everybody’s equal. That’s a beautiful Montana thing and they’re tearing it apart.”

Busse said Montana taxpayer dollars are paying for the state attorney general to defend several badly-written bills in court, and most of the time, the state is losing. He said one of the best ways to avoid that is to have the moderating effect of a Democrat in the governor’s office. He would not only keep the bad bills at bay, but he could also provide some cover for moderate old-school Republicans who have done good work for Montana, Busse said, because there are plenty out there.

Busse recently visited county commissioners in Teton and Beaverhead counties and said both meetings were “fantastic” because they agreed on about 80% of what they discussed.“I’m not judging people, I’m not judging national politics. I’m not worried about what your hat is or your flag is. I’m worried about whether you care about Montana or not,” Busse said. “My job is to help get our state back. Everything else - I’m letting it go. And when you do that, it’s amazing how you meet people.”

Busse said he’s already traveled 18,000 miles trying to get his message out to Montanans, and he knows he has to compete with the U.S. Senate race for their attention. Out-of-state money is already flowing into Montana, buying up advertising time, so Busse said he’s counting some on word-of-mouth, people talking neighbor to neighbor.

“It’s hard to beat an incumbent governor, but this is not a typical incumbent governor. If we win this thing, it will change Western politics. It’s about saving small-d democracy in the Rocky Mountain West,” Busse said. “This is a movement campaign - you need to tell your friends. Especially Trump-loving friends or people that have been so jaundiced by national politics. Tell them that we’re not the crazy wild-eyed Democrats they’ve been warned about. We just want to get our Montana back.”

After growing up in the Midwest, Busse joined the Kimber handgun company and moved up to be an executive based in Kalispell. He left the company and has served on the boards of several conservation nonprofits, including Montana Conservation Voters and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

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