Local lawmakers share thoughts on legislative session during pandemic
When the 67th session of the Montana Legislature convenes this week, in the midst of a pandemic and with anticipated revenue shortfalls, legislators will have plenty on their plates.
They’ll also have a new governor following Greg Gianforte’s inauguration Jan. 4. For most, the session marks their first time serving with a Republican governor in 15 years.
“We’re kind of looking forward to that,” said Republican Senator Dan Salomon. “I think the whole process is going to be different.”
The Ronan dairy farmer was elected to his second term in the Senate after serving six years in the House of Representatives. For the current session, he’ll chair the Education and Cultural Resources Committee and serve as vice chair of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. He also sits on the Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee, and Finance and Claims.
Former Speaker of the House Greg Hertz of Polson moves to the Senate this year after term limits ended his tenure in the other chamber. In a post-election interview, he said he was looking forward to the change of pace.
“In the Senate, the majority have been in the Legislature before and understand the mechanics of how it functions,” he noted. “It should make it easier to move things through.”
Like Salomon, he’s optimistic about working with a governor of his own party. “It offers challenges but it also opens the door to be able to proceed with Republican ideals and an agenda in a way that we haven’t been able to do in the past.”
Hertz is vice chair of the Taxation Committee and also serves on Education and Cultural Resources, Fish and Game, and Rules.
While he acknowledges the budget will be tight for the coming biennium, Hertz anticipates reallocating money for education, workforce development, healthcare (including addiction treatment), support for senior citizens, law enforcement and corrections. Programs aimed at growing the economy are also in the works.
As a member of the Taxation Committee, Hertz hopes to make progress in simplifying Montana’s income tax system and improving the property tax appraisal process. Property tax relief for full-time Montana residents is also among his priorities.
Education, which consumes a big chunk of the budget pie at more than $1 billion annually, faces a wide range of challenges, especially with student progress hampered by pandemic-related school closures and remote learning. “We’ll need to work with parents, students, teachers and school administrators on improving student outcomes and recovering lost time,” says Hertz.
Salomon suspects some forms of remote learning are here to stay and can expand educational opportunities, especially for students in rural areas. He notes that proficiency-based learning opportunities and improvements in career and technical education could also help students earn college credits “and get some of the basics down” while still in high school.
Publicly funded preschool, a priority of outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock, has been rejected in the past by Republican majorities in the Legislature but could reappear, predicts Salomon. While proponents are welcome to submit a bill, he cautions, “Be prepared. In a tough budget year, it will be a tough sell.”
The committee’s agenda will also include funding for special education and community colleges and upping the starting salaries for teachers in K-12.
In the agriculture committee, Salomon expects to see efforts to curb the spread of Brucellosis from wild game to livestock, expand markets for value-added products and streamline outdated rules and regulations “that are gumming things up.”
Republicans hold sizeable majorities in both chambers, 31-18 in the Senate and a 67-33 majority in the House. Still, Salomon says, “The minority party is going to have input at every step of the way. They’re not bashful. They absolutely will have their say.”
However, practically speaking, “If there’s a bill that Republicans, as a body, are totally behind then the Republicans are going to pass it,” he added.
With COVID-19 still circulating across Montana, legislators opted for a hybrid session that allows for both in-person and remote engagement via computers or cell phones.
“Unfortunately the 67th legislative session will not be business as usual,” says Hertz. ”However, we need to make sure that legislators, legislative staff and the public are allowed to meet in person with safety restrictions or use technology that allows participation.”
According to Salomon, “People should participate in the legislative process in whatever way they feel comfortable and safe.”