BILLINGS — It's been a whirlwind first month in office for Montana Governor Greg Gianforte.
The Bozeman businessman inherited the Treasure State's highest office in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the early stages of vaccine distribution.
One of his first acts repealed pandemic-related capacity and curfew restrictions on businesses across Montana, and he said the state's mask mandate. in place since July - would be next if two key stipulations were met: getting Montana's most vulnerable citizens vaccinated, and passing the Virus Liability bill to protect businesses and organizations against COVID-related lawsuits.
In an exclusive conversation this week, MTN touched on those topics and others.
MTN News: Governor, thank you so much for being with us today. We want to start with the pandemic. All eyes, including yours, are on the Coronavirus vaccine distribution. Montana continues to lag behind many states with the allotment of shots we're receiving. You just this past week had to redirect 20,000 shots from a federal allotment into the state to be redistributed. Have you been frustrated at all by this process, and what can you and your staff continue to do to accelerate it?
Gov. Greg Gianforte: This pandemic is the No. 1 issue facing the state. I just want to give a shout out to all of our heroes on the frontline in healthcare. This past week, 91% of all the vaccine doses we've received are in people's arms. This is front-of-the-class performance. Our hospitals and public health officials are just doing a tremendous job. Unfortunately, we do have a supply problem. Montana's receiving 0.15% of the national supply. This puts us near the bottom in the country. Other states have vaccines sitting on the shelf. I've been working with the White House. I would say I am frustrated. They've listened, but nothing's changed yet. This vaccine is safe and effective and it's the light at the end of the tunnel to get through this pandemic.
MTN News: Getting Montanans vaccinated is going to have a direct correlation to getting the state's economy back open, with people feeling more safe to go out to stores and restaurants more frequently. You're planning to accelerate their ability to do that by repealing Montana's mask mandate based on two key factors: one is our most vulnerable population getting the vaccine, and two is the Virus Liability Bill that has passed the State House and State Senate this week. Do you have an idea on when you're planning to be able to repeal the mask mandate?
Gianforte: Well, I've, I've always believed that we're better off with personal responsibility rather than mandates. We acted from day one. You're right. We changed the distribution plan to get vaccines in the arms of the most vulnerable. We did that immediately. Within a week of being in office, we removed the capacity limits and the hours of operations restrictions that were on business. The next step is to remove this mask mandate...I'm pleased with how quickly the legislature has acted. I expect that bill on my desk this week, and we're also going to look at the facts in the case. I, for one, hate these masks. I want to take mine off, throw it in the trash can and go about our life in a safe manner. I know a lot of Montanans feel that way as well.
MTN News: With our positivity rates coming down from the peak in November, do you believe that Montana is out of the woods with the pandemic?
Gianforte: I don't think we are. I am encouraged by what we've seen. Hospitalizations are down to a fraction of what they've been. New infections are also down. We're seeing less deaths across the state, but this virus is still with us and it's going to be with us for awhile. This vaccine is a great step in the right direction. I would just encourage folks, even if we remove this mask mandate, you gotta be careful. Please continue to practice personal hygiene, social separation as possible. Take the precautions you need to protect yourself and the ones you love.
MTN News: Montana is still seeing about 300-400 new cases each day by counties reporting across the state. If there is another spike, are you prepared to put any mandates back in place, or is that not a road you want to go down?
Gianforte: Well, it's hard to deal with a hypothetical. The trend lines are good. I think Montanans have responded. We've relaxed the restrictions on businesses, have not seen an uptake in new infections. We're going to keep walking down this road together, and I'm just pleased that with the availability of this Johnson & Johnson vaccine, hopefully, later this month, we'll have another tool in the box to vaccinate folks and protect the most vulnerable in our communities.
MTN News: You've just completed your fifth week in office. For better or worse, can you give us one thing about being governor that is different than what you expected?
Gianforte: Well, let me just say I'm enjoying the work. My to-do item on my list the day after the election was to hire somebody because we had no team. We've started from scratch, and in this period we've been able to put teams together in the governor's office. We now have very capable directors at each state agency. We've made hundreds of appointments to oversight boards, bring common sense back. We've rolled out a budget. I just like getting 'er done. This budget supports the Montana Comeback. We're going to create more good-paying jobs, change the way we do business in Helena, invest in trades, education, all the while protecting the Montana way of life. I'm just enjoying the work
MTN News: Who have been your most trusted confidants? Who have you been listening to in these first five weeks?
Gianforte: I'm thrilled to be able to serve with Lieutenant Governor (Kristen) Juras. Kristin Juris is a great hand from Conrad - practiced law for 38 years. She's in the inner circle. I brought my chief of staff back from Washington, Chris Hagan. Kurt Alme, our budget director, has been just working his tail off to find a way to lower the tax burden on Montanans without cutting essential services. We've done that with our budget. That's sort of the inner circle. Mike Milburn's joined as former Speaker of the House. He's helping us work with the legislature, so we've got a core set of folks that are just working on behalf of Montanans.
MTN News: How about you and your wife, Susan? It's obviously been a lot of change for you guys over the past five weeks.
Gianforte: The commute from Bozeman to Helena is an awful lot easier than commuting all the way back to Washington D.C. every week. So I'm pleased to be here and have my sleeves rolled up and working for the people in Montana.
MTN News: That commute is going to get a little dicey this weekend, as it looks like winter has finally rolled in.
Gianforte: Well, we've been praying for a little snow.
MTN News: You talk about the Montana Comeback, the name of your budget since the campaign. You've opened the state's businesses by relaxing a lot of restrictions, but you're still at the mercy of people going to them. A big part of that is people coming from out of state and injecting business back into Montana's tourism economy. How much do you feel you can help that, and how much does it just rely on people coming to Big Sky country?
Gianforte: Well, this is an important segment. We have incredible vistas, trout streams, ski hills. People want to come here. And I think for a lot of folks, they're more likely to come see Yellowstone Park or Glacier National Park right now, as they're planning their family vacations this summer than they are to head off to Europe where there are still many restrictions in place. I think that bodes well for us. I think also there's some silver linings in this pandemic. We've all learned if you have a desk job, you don't have to go to work anymore. Well, I think with rural broadband, we're going to work aggressively to invite Montanans to come back home, not to just visit, camp or hike, but to move their families back, bring their jobs with them. It's a way to bring vitality back into communities across the state, enroll more kids at our schools. And you know, as a granddad, I might actually get to see my grandkids more often.
MTN News: It's an important point you bring up. Do you find time for relaxation at all? Do you think that's important to keep from getting burned out?
Gianforte: Oh, no question. I've pushed hard a long time. I mean, having started five different technology businesses, raising a family, I still get a little time in the woods. We put a little meat in the freezer this fall and that's the way I tend to relax. I get out in the woods on the weekends.
MTN News: You mentioned starting five different technology companies. What have been the differences between being the head of a company and running the state of Montana?
Gianforte: Well, it's important in public service that you hear all the voices, whether you agree with them or not. It's one of the things I did in Washington - my wife and I rented a little apartment on Capitol Hill and I cooked dinners every week for members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. I just find when you break bread together, it's a lot easier to find common ground. I think that here in Montana, we share so much more in common than separates us. That's why I've been meeting with the majority leadership every week and the minority leadership. Susan and I are entertaining small groups of legislators almost every night in Helena because that's how we can focus on the things we haven't yet.
MTN News: When you were in Washington, a lot of people consistently referred to you as the wealthiest representative in Congress. Is that something that you're comfortable with? Do you appreciate being known for your business acumen?
Gianforte: Well, I think it's an important skill set I bring to the table, and I'll be honest with you, I'm in favor of prosperity. That's why I ran. I'd like to see more Montanans prosper and who better to do that than someone who's started five businesses and figured out how to put teams together and to govern well. I think that that's an asset for me in this job. My only goal is to create more good-paying jobs, because for too long, Montana families, have exported beef, we've exported grain, and we've exported our kids. Susan and I raised our four kids in Bozeman. Three of our four kids don't live in the state anymore, and there's an awful lot of Montana families that are in that situation. So we've tried other methods. How about we try some business experience?
MTN News: I have two more questions for you. The first, what grade are you giving yourself through the first five weeks?
Gianforte: Well, I think better is always possible. I couldn't be more pleased with the hires we've done. We had our first set of operations reviews for each state agency this week. I've been getting out and walking to visit the agencies, and one of the things I heard when I go out is they've never seen a governor before. That's shocking to me. I'm walking across the lawn from the Capitol to state administration buildings, and 30-year employees are saying they've never seen a governor in the building before. I always grade myself very harshly because I think better is always possible, but I've been encouraged to see some of the great hardworking state employees we have. They need leadership and I look forward to working with my management team to provide it.
MTN News: And I'm going to put you on the spot. What's your Super Bowl prediction?
Gianforte: I'm a Tom Brady fan. Being an old guy, I'm rooting for the old guy.