HELENA – In the half-hour before Steve Bullock delivered his first major speech as governor of Montana, chatter filled the House chamber as legislators, state officials and members of the media speculated about what he would say.
Bullock spent much of his first State of the State address discussing education. He promised to focus on job training in Montana schools, which coincides with his plan to put 2,500 people to work on construction projects at colleges and universities around the state.
He again called on the Legislature to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to serve nearly 70,000 low-income Montanans currently without health insurance. He also advocated for a $400 one-time property tax rebate, the elimination of an equipment tax on 11,000 Montana businesses, and the end of dark money in elections.
Although he had already publicly addressed many of the priorities outlined in his speech, Bullock made a surprise announcement about a new website to view the state’s checkbook.
“We’ll have a searchable database so that anyone in Montana – or anybody across the world, for that matter – can look at how we spend the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’ll lead to a more effective government.”
He unveiled the website, www.transparency.mt.gov, the next day. Visitors to the site can search for information on state spending and employee salaries. Republicans praised the announcement, which came two years after former Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a bill proposed by a Republican lawmaker to create a similar website.
In the official response to the Democratic governor’s speech, Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, stressed Republicans’ desire to work with the governor, but he also outlined some key differences.
He said members of his party worry about federal funding and cannot trust Washington, D.C., to keep its promises.
Although Knudsen did not mention Medicaid by name, state Republican leaders have expressed concern over the federal government’s ability to uphold its end of the bargain, as outlined in the Affordable Care Act. The expansion of Medicaid would require the state to pick up 10 percent of the tab by 2020.
Knudsen also suggested the Legislature reduce taxes for all Montanans – not just those who own property. He also said he sees opportunity for lawmakers from both parties to agree on how to reduce the business equipment tax.