It’s that time again – the election season has come to a close, and Montana is gearing up for the biennial legislative session. The 2013 session saw unprecedented infighting among the fractured GOP caucus, allowing the Democrats to advance a number of policy compromises with moderate Republicans, despite being in the minority. The 2015 session already looks to be shaping up in a similar way, with the TEA Party wing of the Republican party taking leadership, but alienating moderate members who will likely look to work with the Democrats again.
In a move that could come back to bite the TEA partiers during the session, incoming speaker of the house Austin Knudsen has already upset some members of both caucuses by appointing Jeff Essmann and Art Wittich (incoming “freshmen” representatives who were senate president and majority leader in 2013) to important committee chairmanships. Although the two are both experienced legislators, incoming freshman are very rarely, if ever, given top committee spots, and this is sure to rub some more senior Republican members the wrong way.
In case you don’t recall, Essmann and Wittch were the driving force behind the partisan fighting (and infighting) and general lack of productivity in the 2013 Montana senate, while most of the compromises and bipartisanship took place in the house. It seems their work is done in the senate, and now they want to bring their special brand of divisive “leadership” to the lower chamber.
So, aside from the usual spectacle of TEA partiers doing their best to keep anything from getting done, here’s a quick rundown of some issues we’ll likely see brought up this session.
Governor Steve Bullock outlined his priorities for the 2015 legislature last month in a plan that includes expanding Medicaid to cover 70,000 uninsured Montanans, building and infrastructure projects, investing in public early childhood education, and a budget that continues the freeze on college tuition. These are popular proposals that will have huge short and long-term economic benefits for the state, and are widely supported by Montanans. Democrats will back the governor’s policies, and even the Montana Chamber of Commerce, typically a more Republican-alligned group, has come out in support of Medicaid expansion. But, don’t expect these proposals’ popularity to stop TEA party legislators from doing anything they can to block them.
While Gov. Bullock and the Democrats in the legislature are working to advance these policies that will help Montana’s economy, we can pretty safely expect Republicans to push the same types of bad ideas that they were unable to pass last time around. Look for GOP bills on charter schools and vouchers, decreasing access to public lands, and restricting women’s health choices, among others. Beyond that, it’s a pretty good bet that the Republican caucus will split on many issues, just as they did in 2013. Many moderate republicans will likely back proposals like Medicaid expansion and early childhood education, while their leadership will once again use any tactic they can in an attempt to derail them, all without providing many substantive ideas of their own, of course.
The 2015 session kicks off in just under two weeks, and it seems that despite Republican majorities in both chambers, the TEA party will once again be on the defensive, trying their hardest to keep Gov. Bullock and the Democrats from working together with moderates to actually get things done for Montana.