(KPAX) BOZEMAN - In his first interview with MTN News since winning election as Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years, Greg Gianforte said Monday he hopes this month to unveil some task-force recommendations to beat back Covid-19 – and, name most of his cabinet.

Gianforte also said he’d like to get school classrooms open statewide as soon as possible and help businesses rebound, but do so while keeping public health foremost in mind.

“Ultimately, I want to make it easier for small businesses, I want to make it easier for families that are struggling, particularly those who have lost jobs through this period of the pandemic,” he said in an interview at his Bozeman home. “We need to get healthy and we need to get our economy moving again.

“I’d like to look back (six months from now) and have people say, when Greg Gianforte took office, that was the turning point toward better outcomes for Montanans.”

Gianforte, 59, the state’s outgoing U.S. congressman and a former tech entrepreneur, defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney on Nov. 3 to become Montana’s 25th governor. He’ll be sworn in Jan. 4.

Gianforte’s 12-point victory over Cooney was part of a convincing Republican sweep of every statewide office on the 2020 ballot. Republicans also expanded their majorities at the state Legislature, which is scheduled to convene in Helena Jan. 4.

In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Gianforte emphasized that protecting Montanans and the state’s economy from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic is his top priority – yet he didn’t yet have any specific plans.

Gianforte appointed a task force to advise him on the subject and said he’ll wait for its recommendations, before deciding his main steps to fight the virus. Some of those preliminary recommendations should be out this month, he said.

“I’ve asked this task force to look at this from every angle, from how are we going to distribute vaccines, to how we’re going to do testing, to what restrictions should be in place for small business,” he said.

The incoming governor also said he’ll be wearing a face-mask in the Capitol and will recommend others do the same – but stopped short of saying masks should be required, for the 2021 Legislature, the public or even his own staff.

“I generally believe in personal responsibility rather than mandates,” he told MTN News. “I think Montanans will do the right thing when presented with the facts. We have a serious health condition, and we should consider the health and well-being of others as well.”

When asked if the 2021 Legislature should convene as scheduled Jan. 4 at the Capitol, Gianforte said it’s important that the Legislature “come together” to get “the work of the people done.”

It’s up to the Legislature to decide how to do that and when, he said, and declined to recommend what lawmakers should do.

Local public-health officials in Helena have asked that the Legislature meet remotely, without legislators coming to town for an in-person session, to avoid spreading Covid-19.

Some lawmakers met Monday to begin formal discussions on how to conduct the session. Minority Democrats criticized Republicans for refusing to consider delaying the session or enforcing mandates on wearing masks and social-distancing.

A final decision on the session rules and schedule, however, won’t be made until next week.

Gianforte has named his “inner circle” – a budget director, chief counsel, chief of staff and senior adviser – but has yet to name any directors of state agencies, known informally as the governor’s cabinet.

He has appointed several advisory committees that are vetting possible candidates for agency leaders and candidates are being interviewed by several people on his team, he said. Most of them should be announced this month, he added.

“Cabinet picks are incredibly important,” Gianforte said. “I campaigned on bringing new leadership to these agencies, bringing a culture of customer service back. I got a short list from the nominating committees last week, but there are still resumes coming in.”

Gianforte also said he’s hoping to get all kids back in school classrooms, across the state, as soon as possible, because face-to-face learning is vital for children's education.

“I’m optimistic that with the coming of the availability of a vaccine, as we make that available to families and to teachers and our front-line health care workers, we’re going to be able to get back to normal, and we have to, for the sake of the future of our kids,” he said.

Gianforte said his priorities and agenda for the budget and the economy shouldn’t come as a surprise, for they’re laid out in his Montana “comeback plan” that he released in July.

Among those priorities are holding the line on state spending, putting more emphasis on trades education, making it easier for people to start businesses, encouraging natural-resource industries and attacking what he calls a statewide “epidemic” of drug addiction and related crime and social problems.

“We’re going to lay out proposals that will get our economy going again,” Gianforte said. “We campaigned and I got elected on creating more good-paying jobs.”

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