In the face of a global pandemic and a crippled economy, Gov. Greg Gianforte delivered his first State of the State address focusing on dealing with pandemic and stabilizing Montana’s economy.
A masked Gianforte was met with cheers from the gallery as he took the podium.
“While we are resilient, the pandemic remains the biggest challenge we face. Addressing it is my top priority as your governor,” he said.
Gianforte is the first republican governor in 16 years and is at the helm of a republican controlled legislature.
In his 45-minute speech, he promised to help small businesses and said too many have been forced to close calling them “victims of pandemic-induced restrictions and mandated closures.”
For the first time Gianforte took a stance on abortion legislation that has been making it’s way through the legislature and said he would sign a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks and the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, providing that infants born alive after a failed abortion are “legal persons.” And endorsed legislation that would extend the missing and murdered indigenous women task force, ban sanctuary cities and a COVID liability bill.
He announced he will seek the dismissal lawsuits filed against five Flathead County businesses who were sued by former Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration for alleged non-compliance with the administration’s mask mandate — an announcement that garnered a standing ovation from some lawmakers.
In his weeks since taking office, Gianforte promised to rescind the statewide mask mandate and has rolled back capacity and closing restrictions put in place by Bullock — keeping with his goal of shifting responsibility to individuals and away from government mandates.
He has also changed the state’s vaccination plan, which has administered more than 92,567 doses and fully vaccinated 21,629 Montanans, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Each week, Gianforte said, the state asks for the maximum number of doses the federal government will allow, but said it needs more.
“That’s why today I asked President Biden to do everything in his power to ramp up production and send more vaccines to Montana. We need them,” Gianforte said.
Gianforte was met with a standing ovation from the entire gallery as he said he is looking forward to the day “we can throw our masks in the garbage.” But until then, he said, he will continue to wear a mask and encouraged others to do so as well, which was met with less applause.
To address the economic fallout of the pandemic, Gianforte said his administration is guided by three things: Getting the economy going again, opening Montana for business, getting Montanans back to work in good paying jobs.
“As we lead the Montana comeback, we can’t just talk about doing these things. We must do them,” Gianforte said.
Gianforte reinforced the priorities that he laid out in his budget like lowering income tax rates for the top wage-earners, reforming the business equipment tax, boosting trades education, raising teacher salaries, lowering property taxes and dedicating $23.5 million to address substance abuse issues in the state.
Democrats said there is a major disconnect between what Gianforte preached in his speech, like bringing the economy back, and what has taken place on the floor of the legislature where during the first four weeks republicans have been focused on pushing through backlogged conservative bills that stalled at Bullock’s desk.
“We have not seen legislation that has been about the economy, we’ve seen legislation that’s been around the conservative agenda and it has not been about the economy,” said Bozeman freshman democratic representative Alice Buckley. “We’re looking for policies and we’re prioritizing policies, and we’re sponsoring legislation that’s helping working Montanans and we are not getting to vote on that because we’re not seeing our Republican colleagues push that through.”
However, Buckley said she was excited to see Gianforte speak about and endorse things like more mental health access, expanding broadband and telehealth as well as raising teachers salaries.
“Democrats are putting boots on the ground and getting the work done, while [Republicans] are still trying to figure out who their leader is going to be … We’re the party of the working class and we’re gonna keep pushing forward,” said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte.
In the party’s formal rebuttal, Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, called Gianforte’s vision for Montana limited — “limited to massive giveaways for Montana’s wealthiest, and gives quiet approval for an unprecedented barrage of attacks on the freedoms of Montana’s women and children.”
She said Republicans need to focus on messages they campaigned on instead of pushing social conservative policies.
“We invite Republicans in the legislature and in the Governor’s office to come back to reality and get to work on the issues that matter to Montanans. In the meantime, we’re happy to lead the way and build a better Montana,” Bishop said.