HELENA — The start of the 2023 Montana legislative session is just a month and a half away, and we now know who the top legislative leaders will be.
On Wednesday, the newly elected members of the 68th Montana Legislature gathered at the State Capitol to elect Republican and Democratic leaders for the upcoming session.
Counties completed their unofficial vote counts from last week’s election on Monday. Though the results aren’t final until canvassing next week, they give us a clearer picture of what the new Legislature will look like.
In the Senate, Republicans won two seats held by Democrats in Cascade County, as well as another in southwest Montana, in a special election to fill the seat of Sen. Mark Sweeney, D-Philipsburg, who died earlier this year. That gave the GOP a 34-seat majority, their largest in the Senate since 1997.
In the House, it appears Republicans flipped three seats from Democrats, while Democrats won two back from the GOP. After Election Night, Republican candidate Ralph Foster also led by 10 votes in House District 15, which includes parts of the CSKT and Blackfeet reservations. However, after the counting of provisional ballots was completed Monday, incumbent Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning, pulled ahead by 26 votes.
That left Republicans with 68 seats in the House, a net increase of one from last session and their biggest majority in the chamber since 2011.
Overall, the GOP has 102 lawmakers, giving them a two-thirds supermajority that would let them propose constitutional amendments on a party-line vote.
“Most of you probably don’t understand what a blessing it is for me to open this meeting,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, who presided over the Senate Republican caucus as dean – the member who had served the longest in the Legislature. “I’ve been at meetings where we didn’t need a big room like this – we’d fit in less than that half. So it’s wonderful to see all of you here – and some over there.”
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans selected Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, to serve as president. He defeated Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell.
Ellsworth told MTN he wants to see “success” for lawmakers from both parties, and he believes they can find common ground on issues like improving access to housing. In his speech to the caucus before their vote for president, he acknowledged Republicans’ ability to put constitutional amendments before voters – though he said he doesn’t know of any specific proposals for amendments yet.
“I think it’s working with the caucus, finding out what different thoughts and ideas, and what our constituents want,” Ellsworth said. “That’s our job, is to make sure that we deliver what the constituents want for the state.”
The Senate GOP caucus also selected Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, as majority leader and Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, as president pro tem.
On the House side, Republicans chose Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to serve as speaker, over Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta. Regier previously ran for speaker in 2020, against the eventual winner, Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.
Regier told MTN his first priority now is balancing the many priorities of his caucus members. He said after Republicans’ victories in the recent elections, GOP lawmakers “have got to deliver,” and that he believes he can keep the large caucus on the same page.
“I think you stick to the issues,” Regier said. “Everybody’s got a different flavor – I mean, we all do, even though we’re in the same caucus. You just communicate, I think that resolves a lot of the issues moving forward.”
House Republicans reelected Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, as majority leader, and they chose Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, as speaker pro tem.
Democrats in the Senate selected Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, as their minority leader, while House Democrats chose Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena as minority leader for the second session in a row.
Democratic leadership held a news conference Wednesday afternoon, where they laid out their priorities. They called for using the state’s roughly $2 billion surplus on initiatives to help working Montanans. They also vowed to stand up for issues like the right to privacy, and to defend the state’s judiciary – which drew strong criticism from Republicans last session.
Democrats said how this session goes will depend a lot on the majority Republicans.
“We have the resources, we have the vision to make Montana a place where everyday folks can live and thrive – now we just need the political will,” Flowers said. “That will exists on our side of the aisle, and we hope it exists on the other side of the aisle as well.”
“We have to show up every day and fight for our constituents, fight for our communities, fight for our shared values, and we need Republicans to join us on that,” said Abbott. “If we’re going to deliver for our communities, we need them to come and help us out.”
The 2023 legislative session will be getting underway on Jan. 2. MTN will have full coverage leading up to it and throughout the 90 legislative days.
John Riley contributed to this story.