Wednesday night’s State of the State address was an interesting evening at the Capitol. It was the first time since I began covering Montana politics that a governor other than Brian Schweitzer was on the big stage, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The State of the State is a major event for a Montana governor. The address is broadcast live statewide on Montana PBS and Montana Public Radio, and just about every TV station, radio station and newspaper in the state covers the event.
Many of us in the Capitol press corps admitted prior to the speech we were unsure of how Bullock would do in his first-ever State of the State. After all, he’s following in the footsteps of one of the best orators many of us have ever seen in Montana. Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer wasn’t popular with everyone – particularly Republicans, whom Schweitzer needled at every turn – but at the end of the day nobody could argue the man’s ability to work a crowd.
Bullock brings a much different style to the governor’s office. As he pointed out in his speech, just three weeks in to his term as governor he’s “already been trying to change the tone in the halls of this building.”
While he didn’t mention Schweitzer by name, Bullock’s message on that point was clear: “I’m not Brian Schweitzer.”
The consensus among most people I talked to after the speech was that Bullock did a great job. It was a strong speech and it was masterfully delivered. Even many Republicans said they liked the speech, though they didn’t like all the spending proposals Bullock rolled out.
My first thought after he finished the address was this:
“This guy showed us tonight he is the governor.”
Observations from the floor
The press corps is mostly relegated to the east side of the House floor during speeches like this, which means we’re stationed along the GOP’s side of the aisle. That’s always an interesting place to be during a speech delivered by a Democrat. When the big applause lines come, we all watch to see which Republicans clap or stand and which Republicans keep their arms crossed tightly over their chests.
I paid keen attention to a standing ovation that came when Bullock blasted the rise of dark money groups that “target candidates and refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent.”
“They hide behind made-up names and made-up newspapers. They operate out of P.O. Boxes or Washington, D.C. office buildings. They falsely proclaim themselves the guardians of Montana’s traditions.
These groups believe they can violate our laws and corrupt our government in order to create a system that benefits their special interests.
Montanans deserve better.”
At that point the House floor erupted with the cheers and applause from Democrats and a handful of enthusiastic Republicans. Without having a clear view of the entire floor I can’t say for certain which Republicans stood and cheered and which ones sat on their hands, but it was a moment many of us talked about after the speech. If anyone can produce video of that particular applause line that shows the entire House floor it would certainly been an interesting study.
Another point that stood out to me was when Bullock talked about returning from the airport after having greeted troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to find out a Legislative committee had cut funding for “wrap-around” services that would make it easier for returning soldiers to attend universities.
“I urge you to restore these funds, live up to the promises we’ve made and welcome these warriors home with more than just words,” Bullock said.
At that point Democrats jumped to their feet and most of the Republican side of the aisle joined them. However, in front of me one Republican Senator remained firmly planted in her seat, not clapping. As another Senator looked over at her and said something she shook her head and said, “I’m not clapping for that.”
All-in-all Bullock did a good job of defining his policy agenda and laying down markers for the next three months of the Legislative session. He’s going to push for more spending on education. He wants a fix to the state pension system that “honors the commitment to Montana’s public servants.” He’s going to continue to push for his proposed $400 homeowner tax rebate. He wants to expand Medicaid. And he wants campaign finance reform that gets dark money out of politics.
How much of that agenda he will get accomplished remains to be seen as the Republican-dominated Legislature continues to chip away at spending proposals and bring their own policy agendas to bear on the state budget, namely, reducing Montana’s reliance on federal dollars.
Bullock, however, seemed sincere in his desire and willingness to work with GOP lawmakers going forward.
“We need each other if we’re going to make progress,” Bullock told members of the House and Senate.
The only words that rang truer were Bullock’s closing thoughts:
“At the end of any one of our terms. . . yours or mine. . . we will be measured by the progress we have made. And the true measure will be taken not by the politicians or pundits, but by our children. Let us not forget that it is to them we are most accountable.”