(HELENA) The Montana Legislature officially started its 65th session Monday, and the state’s next group of elected officials started their terms.
Temperatures hovered near zero in Helena during the morning, forcing inauguration festivities to move indoors, to the State Capitol rotunda.
Students from Helena Middle School and Central Elementary School started the celebration by singing “What a Wonderful World.” Then state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath administered the oath of office to all of Montana’s new and reelected statewide officials, including Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.
Bullock opened his second four-year term with a call for unity. He asked his fellow officeholders to come together and focus on governing, instead of political posturing. He offered them a challenge.
“How will you positively influence Montana?” he asked. “Will you be remembered for your rhetoric, or your results?”
If Bullock wants to accomplish his agenda this year, he’ll have to work with members of the opposing party. Republicans swept the other four state executive offices. Newly elected Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and Superintendent of Public Schools Elsie Arntzen were sworn in today, along with reelected Attorney General Tim Fox. The results gave Republicans a majority on the state land board for the first time in more than 20 years.
New Supreme Court Justice Dirk Sandefur was also sworn in for an eight-year term, along with current justice Jim Shea.
After Bullock’s speech, Democratic Rep. George Kipp III of Heart Butte sang a traditional victory song from his Blackfeet ancestors. He noted that the song is about the enemy, and said his grandmother told him, “It wouldn’t be a good victory if you didn’t have a good enemy.” He drew a parallel to the competition of politics.
“The individuals that aren’t very successful, they’re still Montanans,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all Montanans.”
In the afternoon, the members of the state Senate and House of Representatives were sworn into office. Republicans maintained or expanded their majorities in both chambers in November’s elections.
Rep. Austin Knudsen of Culbertson was again selected as speaker of the House, after serving in the same position in the 2015 session. He is the first representative to serve multiple terms as speaker since John Mercer held the post from 1993 to 2000.
Knudsen says he wants all legislators’ voices to be heard.
“We can disagree, and believe me, we’re going to disagree, on this floor and in committee,” he said. “But I expect those disagreements to be civil and professional.”
House Republicans held a news conference on Monday to lay out their action plan for the 90-day legislative session. The plan includes proposals on improving health care options and support essential infrastructure projects, but one issue looms above the rest.
“Our caucus is going to do what we were sent to do here, the speaker talked about it, and that’s balancing the budget,” said Rep. Ron Ehli of Hamilton, the House Majority Leader.
Ehli says Republicans will take a close look at Gov. Bullock’s budget proposal – particularly the cuts he has suggested. He says cuts shouldn’t fall on those who need the most help.
Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena, the House Minority Leader, issued a statement in response to the Republican press conference. In it, she argued that the state’s budget issues are partly due to 2003 tax cuts that she says benefited the wealthy and large corporations.
“In 2017, House Democrats are focused this session on passing a state budget that is fair to Montana’s working- and middle-class families,” the statement concluded.