HELENA – Democratic Governor Steve Bullock made a strong pitch Thursday night for his top priorities of education and infrastructure funding and Medicaid expansion in his final State of the State address — and also told lawmakers he won’t accept an inadequate state budget.
“Don’t send me a budget where I’ll have to make the cuts, due to the failure of this Legislature to leave money in the bank,” he said. “Because if you do, I’ll send it back.”
Gov. Bullock spoke for nearly 45 minutes to a joint session at the Capitol of the Montana House and Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans.
Lawmakers interrupted his speech two dozen times with applause – but, on most occasions, Republicans sat on their hands, while the Democrats did the clapping.
Gov. Bullock, 52, is in the final two years of his second term, unable to run for re-election because of term limits.
He spent most of the speech on familiar territory, marking the accomplishments of his tenure – low unemployment, a growing state economy, advances in education – and urging lawmakers to pass his top proposals.
Those plans include state-funded preschool, more state funding for the university system in order to freeze tuition, and $5 million for a new need-based aid program to help in-state college students pay tuition and other costs.
“We have worked together, across the aisle, across rural and urban … to make record investments in our educational system, offering students the tools they need to succeed,” he said. “Let’s build on the progress we’ve made, starting with our youngest learners.”
Republicans already are working on their own preschool plan, to be introduced in the next several weeks.
They’ve also started putting together alternative bills for state-funded infrastructure, such as local water and sewer systems, bridges and college-campus buildings.
Gov. Bullock, however, said there’s no reason financially or politically why the Legislature shouldn’t accept his $290 million infrastructure package – and suggested he won’t accept a plan that doesn’t address both rural and urban needs.
“Other states have chosen to incur reasonable borrowing rather than passing on crumbling infrastructure to their kids,” he said. “We are out of step with the rest of the country.”
“Break the logjam. This session, let’s deliver infrastructure for Montana, for now and for future generations of Montana.”
But the Democratic governor saved his strongest pitch for continuing Medicaid expansion, the $600 million-a-year program that provides health coverage to 95,000 low-income Montana adults. Ninety percent of the cost is federal money.
The program is set to expire in June, and Republicans have said they won’t support an extension without some additional restrictions on eligibility.
Gov. Bullock spent several minutes touting the economic and social benefits of Medicaid – and said it doesn’t need additional “measure that cost more to administer than provide the services in the first place.”
Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation – while Republicans sat, and, with a few exceptions, didn’t clap.
The governor’s only new proposal unveiled Thursday night was a ban on foreign spending in Montana elections.
He also made it clear that he won’t accept a budget like the one Republicans passed two years ago – with less than $300 million of cushion and several rounds of contingency cuts that occurred later when state revenue didn’t hit certain targets.
“Let’s make sure the consequences of 2017 and the resulting special session will serve as lessons learned, not lessons repeated,” he said. “Don’t send me a budget where the cuts aren’t realized until after you adjourn.”
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News