HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock promised on Wednesday to "change the tone" in the Capitol as he asked a Legislature led by opposition Republicans to help him in cutting taxes, fixing the state pension system, increasing education funding, expanding Medicaid and shedding light on the so-called "dark money" flooding politics.
In his first State of the State speech, Bullock gave an aggressive 45-minute sales pitch for budget plans that are already being met with partisan resistance in the Montana Legislature.
The Democrat asked the GOP-controlled Legislature to be his partner, although he had a couple of pointed remarks aimed at Republicans opposed to some proposals. Bullock is replacing Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was dismissive of a Legislature he preferred to steamroll than negotiate with.
"We need each other if we are going to make progress," Bullock said.
Bullock made it clear in his speech that he thinks his proposals are superior to alternatives seen so far from the Republican-led Legislature. The Democrat painted a rosy picture of state finance that he believes warrants investment in key areas — and seemed to offer little room for negotiation.
In response, a rising leader in the Republican caucus said there is some "common ground" with the governor — and echoed the request to work together. But 31-year-old Austin Knudsen of Culbertson made it clear that Republicans — opposed to Bullock's request for double-digit percentage increases in state spending and federal money for health care expansion — will be seeking compromise on top of friendly words.
"We need to be very conservative in making new commitments," Knudsen said.
The governor called for a tuition freeze and said his $100 million plan to build college and vocational school buildings is necessary to train nurses, welders, diesel mechanics and other high-growth fields. And he said it would create jobs for 2,500 construction workers.
The governor also said he wants to tighten rules requiring Montana workers on public projects, provide state help to eastern Montana counties struggling to build infrastructure to keep up with the oil boom, and asked lawmakers to restore economic development money aimed at Indian reservations.
He also outlined a broad initiative to increase the number of adults with college or post-high school vocational training from 40 percent of the population to 60 percent, telling lawmakers "we can't do this without you." He said lottery funds originally targeted for schools should be used for that purpose.
Bullock also made his case for the politically charged request to expand Medicaid for up to 70,000 uninsured Montanans. The state would have to pay a small fraction of the cost if it agreed to accept federal health care overhaul money for the expansion. He argued the uninsured rely on costly emergency room care, leaving unpaid bills that are often passed onto paying customers with higher prices.
If Montana doesn't take the federal money, Bullock said, it would just go to other states who will take it.
"It's time we set the politics aside on this issue. Politics won't treat diabetes. Extremism won't create jobs. And intransigence won't provide health care for those who can't afford it," Bullock said with a line that like several others drew loud applause from Democrats and silence from Republicans.
The Democrat and Republican leaders have been at odds on tax cut plans.
The Democrat argued his $400-per-homeowner property tax rebate is better than an across-the-board percentage cut because more of it goes to average Montanans. He said the same for a business equipment tax cut that eliminates the levy on the state's 11,000 businesses with less than $100,000 in equipment — but leaves it in place for bigger companies.
In both cases, Republicans are seeking tax cuts that reduce the rate for most everyone.
"If you take the $100 million and use it to cut property taxes instead, the average Montana homeowner would receive just $44 this year, not $400. Think about that," said Bullock, who argued one of the largest out-of-state companies with property in Montana would get a $1 million tax break.
Knudsen, the Republican attorney from the northeastern corner of Montana, said tax breaks should not be restricted just to homeowners, and should be permanent.
"Republicans agree that we should find opportunities to return excess revenues to Montana taxpayers," he said. "Every single Montanan deserves tax relief. No one should be left out."