By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock outlined his goals for the 2017 Legislature Tuesday night during his third State of the State address, including a responsible state budget, infrastructure, business growth and education.
While addressing a joint session of the House and Senate, Bullock named common values, including: “Fiscal responsibility. Education. Infrastructure. Job creation. Caring for others.”
“We must engage in thoughtful, rational, and constructive dialogue with one another,” Bullock said.
Immediately following Gov. Bullock’s address, Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, delivered a rebuttal that chastised Bullock for what Knudsen called a lack of leadership, while outlining the Republican response to many of the governor’s proposals.
“Tonight Gov. Bullock outlined his priorities,” Knudsen said. “But so far he’s provided little to no leadership in how to achieve these priorities.”
The two leaders painted contrasting pictures of Montana’s economy, with Bullock touting growth and Knudsen comparing it to the sinking Titanic.
Gov. Bullock touted Montana’s lower unemployment rate and household income growth. But he also said with global commodity prices down, and uncertainty in Washington, the state still faces challenges.
He also made his opposition to some proposals clear, most notably the transfer of public lands to the state.
“Do not send bills to my desk that even suggest or start down the path of transferring our public lands out of public hands,” Bullock said. “Because that will not happen – not on my watch.”
Bullock first addressed Montana’s budget, a contentious issue throughout the 65th legislative session. He reiterated the need for a $300 million ending fund balance, as well as his commitment to $102 million in state agency spending cuts.
He then chastised the Legislature for their proposed cuts to the Child and Family Services Division. He also said it “doesn’t make sense” to not place an additional tax bracket on high-income Montanans. Many Republicans have criticized this as detrimental to Montana’s job creators.
He also named infrastructure, another hot topic throughout the session as a priority. Bullock said he recognizes all legislators see the need for infrastructure investment, but said, “Montanans need you to do more than recognize it. They need you to vote for it.”
Bullock named two projects in particular that are key to the Democrats’ infrastructure plan — renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall and the construction of a veteran’s home in Butte.
“Let’s … craft a bipartisan infrastructure proposal,” Bullock said. “Let’s make sure we fund our state share of highway projects, and make these some of the first bills to reach my desk – not the last.”
During the 2015 session, the proposed infrastructure plan died at the last moment, failing by a single vote.
While addressing public education, Gov. Bullock asked legislators to increase investment in K-12 funding by $30 million, as well as $2 million for internet connectivity programs and $1.5 million for special education. He also signalled commitment to continuing investment in Native American language programs, as well as tribal colleges.
Gov. Bullock also called for investment in early childhood education, which he says 45 other states have already implemented.
Addressing business growth, Gov. Bullock asked legislators to implement a $1,000 tax credit each apprentice taken on by a business. That credit increases to $2,000 if the apprentice is a veteran.
He further called for tax decreases of up to 75 percent for businesses who purchase new equipment for the first five years. He also asked for passage of the Paycheck Transparency Act, saying “Workers – and especially female workers – should not be penalized for their prior wage history or for asking if they are getting paid the same as coworkers.”
Bullock signaled his intent to address climate change, but added he did not believe that meant divestment from fossil fuels. He outlined various plans for carbon capture implementation, including a proposed joint partnership with the state of Wyoming that would commit $3 million for investment in carbon capture technologies.
Outlining his goals for health care, Bullock specifically cited mental health services as a priority. He proposed a $1 million commitment to funding of suicide prevention pilot programs, saying he was “haunted” by the fact that Montana leads the nation in youth suicide.
He also pointed to increased funding for senior services and child protective services as priorities.
In his rebuttal, Rep. Knudsen said the Legislature should work toward removing impediments to small business growth, allowing Montana’s job creators to “grow, create and innovate.”
Knudsen said Bullock’s proposed budget was unrealistic, and he actively ignored the “the financial reality in front of him” due to being in the midst of a campaign.
After noting Bullock’s minimal discussion of the potential for coal plant unit closures in Colstrip, Knudsen said he will be sponsoring a bill that will help keep those two units open, in spite of owner Puget Sound Energy’s announcement that they close by 2022. Knudsen did not offer the specifics of the bill.
Knudsen also applauded President Donald Trump’s executive order to continue development on both the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines, saying they would have positive impacts for the energy sector. He also noted his excitement about working with Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, who is expected to become Secretary of the Interior under the Trump administration.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Governor, as we work to reach results,” Knudsen said. “That’s what the people of Montana sent us here to do.”
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.