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Bullock seeks to cement legacy in final State of the State

February 1, 2019
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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock delivers the State of the State address in the Montana State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock sought to cement his legacy in his final State of the State speech Thursday, touting improvements in Montana’s economy, educational opportunities and health care coverage since he took office in 2013.

Bullock also made a pitch for his budget proposal, which includes some tax increases, along with additional spending on early childhood education and continuing one of his biggest accomplishments: the passage of a Medicaid expansion program that is due to expire this year.

The Democrat also asked lawmakers to borrow money to pay for $290 million for roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, saying his proposal addresses past concerns that left him just short of the two-thirds vote required to issue bonds.

“So I ask you to break the logjam,” he said, noting the work will create jobs while delays mean the projects will cost more. “This session let’s deliver infrastructure for Montana for now and for future generations.”

Bullock characterized spending on health care, education and infrastructure as an investment in Montana and its future.

Senate President Scott Sales, in his response, countered that such spending, coupled with the federal government’s deficit, was “passing on a debt to future generations — our kids and our grandkids — a debt that they can never repay.”

Sales urged the state to remove roadblocks to natural resource development, including timber, copper, coal and three mining projects that he said would create high-paying jobs and generate millions in tax revenues.

“With the technology and the laws we currently have in place we can do this in an environmentally friendly fashion that doesn’t degrade the great outdoors that we all cherish,” Sales argued. “The best health care program anyone can have is a good job so they can buy their own health care.”

Bullock insisted lawmakers leave a $300 million reserve in the next two-year budget, arguing the $200 million favored by the Republican majority leaves too little room for error.

“Let’s craft a budget that is balanced, that funds the services Montanans expect and leaves money in the bank for unexpected things that might come our way,” Bullock said.

Revenue shortfalls and a record fire season in 2017 led to millions of dollars of cuts in services and a special session, something Bullock does not want to repeat.

“Don’t send me a budget where the cuts aren’t realized until after you adjourn, and 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,” Bullock warned. “Because if you do, I’ll send it back.”

He also asked lawmakers to pass tax increases that target tourists and people who use tobacco and alcohol.

Sales said: “Republicans are committed to crafting a budget that lives within our means, free from the $160 million worth of tax increases that the governor would like to pass. We believe that the people of Montana, if allowed to keep their own money, can spend that better than we can here in Helena.”

Bullock said he was optimistic both parties can work together. His ability to work across party lines has been a major theme in his speeches across the nation as he explores a potential run for president in 2020.