HELENA (AP) — Republican lawmakers in the Montana House struck a deal meant to head off a potential rift between the majority party’s conservative and moderate factions as the legislative session opened Monday with contentious debates looming over the budget and the future of Medicaid expansion.
“On Day 1, Republicans are united and ready to get to work,” said House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson. “We’ve heard from Montanans that we should find ways to come together, and we’ve done that.”
Lawmakers were sworn in Monday for the 90-day session that will be Gov. Steve Bullock’s last as the Democrat tries to pass his agenda through a Republican-led Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, told senators that he expects the Republican majority will hold firm against Bullock’s proposals for tax increases in areas such as the hospitality industry and alcohol and tobacco sales.
“I expect that in the end, yes, we will hold the line on taxes,” work to keep public lands open, “prioritize funding for our local schools and those in our society in Montana that are in most needy,” Thomas said.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, called for civility among lawmakers.
“We are one body, and we are going to be judged, and our legacy will be judged, on how well on how well we treat each other,” Sesso said.
Hertz had similar advice in the House.
“The rules under which we operate in this house call for civility, courtesy and professionalism,” Hertz said. “That must occur both within and outside these walls.”
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, acknowledged the minority Democrats were going to have to work with the majority to reach agreements on a two-year budget, whether to continue Medicaid expansion and funding infrastructure work.
“Everything that we propose, if we want it to get through, has to be a bipartisan solution,” Schreiner said. “And that’s what this body’s about.”
Senators and representatives on both sides have said they believe Medicaid expansion will pass in some form.
Republicans reached a compromise on a rules issue that threatened to create a divide that could possibly lead moderate Republicans to team up with Democrats to advance bills.
Democrats and moderate Republicans had sought to lower the requirement to bring a bill stuck in committee to the House floor from 60 votes to a simple majority of 51 votes.
The compromise, 58 votes, reflects the number of Republican lawmakers in the House. There are 42 Democrats.
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday and the rules could still change, Hertz said.
Schreiner said the rules should ensure everyone’s voice is heard.
“We’ll continue to push for 51 — that’s democracy,” he said.