By Mike Dennison
Gov. Steve Bullock, in his second State of the State address, said Montana is prospering overall -- but called on the 2015 Legislature Wednesday night to use the tools of government to help fellow citizens who are struggling.
From expanding health coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans to a $400 million infrastructure plan hesaid will create 4,000 jobs, the first-term Democrat urged the GOP-controlled Legislature to overlook partisanship and adopt his wide-ranging agenda.
"I see a Montana with a robust middle class, with even better-paying jobs and greater opportunities -- not a place where workers idly hope that prosperity will trickle down from Wall Street," he said to a joint session of the Montana House and Senate at the Capitol and a statewide TV audience. "I see a Montana where, as we climb higher, we never fail to offer a hand up to those who struggle."
Yet while Bullock urged bipartisan cooperation and singled out Republican lawmakers sponsoring several of his key proposals, he also sprinkled the speech with some jabs at GOP ideology and ideas.
Bullock labeled states that had slashed taxes under Republican governors as "experiments that have failed," noting they face huge deficits.
"I'm glad we've not chosen that path. ..." he said. "I'm glad that we've taken a balanced approach. We've protected our fiscal health. We've invested in our priorities. We've maintained cash surpluses."
Bullock also laid down some markers for the Legislature, saying he would veto any infrastructure bill that doesn't benefit the entire state and that he'll insist on a $300 million surplus for the state's two-year budget.
Bullock's hour-long speech was interrupted 51 times by applause, led largely by his fellow Democrats. Republicans, who have majorities in both the state House and Senate, mostly sat on their hands during applause lines.
Bullock's speech outlined and promoted proposals well-known to most lawmakers.
The governor devoted the longest stretches of his speech to Medicaid expansion, the $400 million infrastructure plan and his proposal to use state funding for local preschool programs.
Bullock is proposing to accept more than $700 million in federal funding over the next two years to extend Medicaid coverage to 70,000 Montanans -- a plan opposed by most Republicans in the Legislature as an expansion of "Obamacare" and an unnecessary, expensive welfare program.
He said the expansion will help struggling rural hospitals and 70,000 Montanans who otherwise can't afford health insurance.
"The 70,000 Montanans who are hiding in plain view -- they're the working poor," he said. "The folks punching the clock, but not making enough to afford insurance. The 70,000 people we're talking about -- that cook our meals, care for our loved ones, work our farms and ranches -- they work hard and want for themselves and their families what you want for yours."
He also noted that most lawmakers are getting coverage from the state-employee health plan, saying "don't tell me you don't like government health care."
On infrastructure, Bullock said his plan will meet dire needs across the state for new water and sewer systems, school buildings and roads, while providing jobs -- and can be done without raising taxes.
He ribbed Republicans for opposing the sale of state bonds to help finance a big part of the proposal: "I don't understand those who say they want to run government like a business, yet won't consider using common-sense and sound financial tools."
And on his $37 million preschool proposal, the governor said Montana is one of the only states without publicly funded preschool, which he said can give all kids a running start on learning.
"That's why it's unfortunate that it seems to have become a partisan football here in Montana," he said. "If Republican governors around the country can understand the importance of high-quality preschool, I hope Republican legislators in Montana can, too."
Bullock also lined out other proposals, including some being sponsored by Republican lawmakers:
--A campaign-finance reform bill, to be carried by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, that will require public disclosure of money spent on elections.
"It's simple: Every penny spent in our elections should be disclosed and Duane and I are proposing that we do just that," the governor said. "We should have elections, not auctions."
--A $1,000 per-year, per-worker tax credit for businesses that hire workers in apprenticeship program, through a bill sponsored by Rep. Christy Clark, R-Choteau.
--Approval of the Confederated Salish and Kooteni Tribes water-rights compact, which he called a "fair deal and a great bipartisan solution" that affirms tribal water rights but protects non-Indian water-users on the Flathead Indian Reservation and elsewhere.
(c)2015 The Montana Standard