The 66th session of the Montana Legislature convenes Jan. 7 in Helena. Over the course of the next four months, our elected representatives will be tasked with taking on a bevy of pressing issues: funding for infrastructure, debating the merits of a local option sales tax, Gov. Steve Bullock’s preschool proposal, revamping Montana’s DUI laws, and of course — the $59 million gorilla in the room — the looming sunset of Montana’s Medicaid expansion program.
That’s just a sampling of the heavy agenda awaiting the Legislature’s arrival Monday. And with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, and a Democrat governor, the prospect for so-called gridlock on many of these issues is highly likely.
As three-term state legislator Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, described it, the chance of Republican legislators and the governor butting heads is “only always.”
“It does provide challenges,” Garner told the Inter Lake. “It’s not supposed to be easy… but we must be careful to not make it impossible.”
Garner is spot on here.
One look to Washington, D.C. is all it takes to see how it shouldn’t be done — ugly personal attacks, partisan polarization and yet another government shutdown.
Garner is hopeful that Montana can avoid those pitfalls, and advises that keeping the dialogue open and respectful will be “critical to our success.”
“We’re starting off with some hard conversations, but in all 65 [legislative sessions] we’ve passed a balanced budget, and the good news is we’ll do it again.”
Garner points to Medicaid expansion as possibly the hardest of those hard conversations to come, and according to a few local legislators we talked to, this is where the gridlock is likely to set in like concrete.
“Steering clear of gridlock at what cost?” Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, asked.
“Medicaid expansion… has taken away a lot of resources for those it’s intended for. If that’s the gridlock, that is something I’d gridlock.”
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, suggested gridlock can actually be good if it stops bad legislation from passing.
We’re certainly not asking legislators to set aside their political convictions heading into this session. They should always vote for what they believe is best for their constituents.
But we do remind our legislators that the best way to maximize their productivity while in Helena is to be mindful of respectful debate and to vigorously pursue common ground when it’s within reach. Give a little — reach across the aisle when the opportunity arises — and potentially gain a lot for everyone in Montana.
“It’s our job to find the common interest,” Garner said. “It’s always a challenge, but we always find a way.”
It’s once again time to get to work in Helena. Let’s make it a productive, and respectful, session.