HELENA – With the start of the 2023 legislative session in Montana just a month and a half away, we now know who the top legislative leaders will be.
On Wednesday, the newly elected members of the 68thth The Montana Legislature gathered at the State Capitol to elect Republican and Democratic leaders for the upcoming session.
The counties on Monday completed their unofficial vote counts from last week’s elections. While the results aren’t final until next week’s vote, they give us a clearer picture of what the new legislature will look like.
In the Senate, Republicans won two seats from Democrats in Cascade County and 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 majority of 34 seats, their largest in the Senate since 1997.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans appear to have flipped three seats from Democrats, while Democrats regained two from the GOP. After election night, Republican nominee Ralph Foster also led by 10 votes in House District 15, which includes parts of the CSKT and Blackfeet reservations. However, after the count of provisional ballots completed Monday, incumbent Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr., D-Browning, went ahead by 26 votes.
That left Republicans with 68 seats in the House, a net increase of one from the last session and their largest majority in the House since 2011.
In all, the GOP has 102 lawmakers, giving them a two-thirds majority that would allow them to propose constitutional changes on a party-line vote.
“Most of you probably don’t understand what a blessing it is for me to open this meeting,” said Senator John Esp, R-Big Timber, who served as dean of the Republican faction of the Senate — the member that has served the longest had served in the legislature. “I’ve been to meetings where we didn’t need a large room like this – we would fit in less than half. So it’s wonderful to see you all here – and some over there.”
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans elected Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, as president. He defeated Senator Keith Regier, R-Kalispell.
Ellsworth told MTN he wants to see “success” for lawmakers from both parties and he believes they could find common ground on issues like improving access to housing. In his speech to the faction ahead of their election as president, he credited Republicans’ ability to introduce constitutional amendments to voters — though he said he didn’t know of any specific proposed amendments yet.
“I think it’s about working with the caucus and finding out what different thoughts and ideas and what our constituents want,” Ellsworth said. “That’s our job, making sure we deliver what voters want for the state.”
The Senate GOP caucus also elected Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, to be Majority Leader and Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, to be acting President.
On the House side, Republicans elected Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, to replace Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta as speaker. Governor previously ran as a speaker in 2020 against eventual winner, Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale.
Regier told MTN his first priority now is to balance the many priorities of his caucus members. He said after Republican victories in the recent election that GOP lawmakers “have to deliver,” and that he believes he can keep the grand caucus on the same page.
“I think you’re staying on topic,” Regier said. “Everyone has different tastes – I mean we all have, even though we’re in the same caucus. They just communicate, I think that solves a lot of the problems in the future.
House Republicans elected Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, as Majority Leader, and they elected Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, as Speaker.
Senate Democrats elected Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, as their minority leader, while House Democrats elected Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, as their minority leader for the second straight session.
The Democratic leadership held a press conference Wednesday afternoon where they laid out their priorities. They called for the state’s roughly $2 billion surplus to be used on initiatives to support working Montanans. They also pledged to stand up for issues like the right to privacy and defend the state’s judiciary — something that drew heavy criticism from Republicans in the last session.
Democrats said how this session will go will depend heavily on the Republican majority.
“We have the resources, we have the vision to make Montana a place where people can live and thrive — now all we need is 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.”
“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 in this,” Abbott said. “If we’re going to do something for our communities, we need them to help us.”
The 2023 legislative period begins on January 2nd. MTN will be extensively covered leading up to and during the 90 legislature days.
John Riley contributed to this story.