HELENA — Greg Gianforte, in a call with reporters one week before becoming Montana’s 25th governor, said Monday he’ll be announcing new guidelines next week on fighting COVID-19, which he considers his top priority.
Gianforte, the first Republican to win the governorship in 16 years in Montana, wouldn’t say what he’s considering – but indicated he may relax some restrictions put into place by outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
“I’ve always said the decisions we make on Jan. 4 and beyond need to be based on the facts on the ground, at this point,” he said. “I would point out that we’ve seen a precipitous drop in the number of new infections per day. That’s encouraging to me.”
The governor-elect and soon-to-be-former congressman also said he won’t have his cabinet entirely filled when he’s sworn into office next Monday.
However, he said he’ll reveal some of them this week and hopes to fill out the rest by next week or so.
“Well over half of the 12 have been offered and accepted,” he said. “From my career of building teams – the most important thing is having the right person in the chair, not just filling the chair.”
Governors appoint the directors of a dozen state agencies, subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
As of Monday, Gianforte had announced only one: Former state Sen. Mike Foster to head up the Agriculture Department, a relatively small agency.
Yet to be named are directors of high-profile departments like Public Health and Human Services, Corrections, Fish Wildlife and Parks, Environmental Quality and Revenue.
Gianforte, Montana’s current congressman and a former high-tech entrepreneur from Bozeman, won election Nov. 3, defeating Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.
His victory made Montana the only state in the nation that saw a change of party control in the governor’s office this election.
One of his first post-election acts was appointing a task force to advise him on policy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Monday the task force will give him recommendations this week and that he’ll announce which steps he’ll take next week, after he becomes governor.
“As we continue to confront this virus together, my priority remains protecting the most vulnerable while also safely and fully re-opening our economy,” he told reporters Monday.
Last month, Gov. Bullock imposed a statewide mandate for wearing face masks in buildings accessible to the public and tightened restrictions on bars, restaurants, casinos and gatherings of 25 or more people. At the time, new COVID-19 cases in Montana were averaging 1,000 a day.
In the past 10 days, the state has averaged about 450 new cases a day and below 300 since Christmas.
Gianforte said he’ll be wearing a mask in the state Capitol, as governor, and plans to get vaccinated when one is available for him. But, as he has said many times before, Gianforte also said he believes in “personal responsibility” rather than mandates.
“I encourage Montanans to continue to make smart decisions for their health and the health of their loved ones, in their community,” he said. “With freedom, comes responsibility to those around us. I trust Montanans to do what’s right with that responsibility.”
Republican majorities at the Legislature, which convenes in Helena on Monday, have refused to require lawmakers to wear face masks at the Capitol at the 2021 session.
They voted to set up a special panel of leadership that will set any policies at the session to react to COVID-19 developments.
When asked about legislative priorities, Gianforte said he’ll be focused on his Montana “comeback plan,” a 12-page outline of wide-ranging policies that emphasize business development in the state and fiscal and social conservatism.
However, he cautioned that the state budget will be tight – and noted that he campaigned on holding the line on state spending.
“As I said to both the majority and the minority (at the Legislature), if they have ideas that are consistent with that plan, we’re going to be supportive,” he said. “But we do have fiscal restraints, which is going to make it difficult for a lot of new spending.”