Senate Republicans on Monday elected a self-described “staunch fiscal conservative” in Sen. Scott Sales of Bozeman to be Senate president for the 2017 Legislature.
Sales, 56, won what was described as a close race for the top job over Sen. Eric Moore of Miles City.
The vote was by secret ballot, with the tally kept confidential.
His election will be made formal on Jan. 2, the first day of the 2017 session. After the Nov. 8 election, Senate Republicans widened their margin over Democrats to 32-18.
“If you want more freedom, you need less government,” Sales told GOP senators. “If you want a larger, more vibrant private economy, you need less government. For too long, we’ve been feeding the government and not paying attention to our constituents and to the private sector.”
Sales, who said he’s more or less retired, is believed to be the second Montanan in state history to be both presiding officer of both the Senate and House. Sales was House speaker in 2007.
Citing his administrative experience, Sales said he will push for the body to work expeditiously. There’s no reason why the Legislature can’t adjourn eight to 10 days earlier than its allotted 90 days, he said.
Reporters later asked Sales about what he would do to heal the divisions among Republicans that surfaced in the 2013 and 2015 sessions. The split allowed Bullock and legislative Democrats to work with moderate Republicans in 2015 to expand Medicaid and to pass a tougher campaign finance disclosure law.
Sales said he believes the internal GOP division is over.
“If you look at it, we don’t have a lot of money, so I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of new initiatives,” Sales said. “Just from talking to caucus members, I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in raising taxes. With declining revenues, and if we’re not going to raise taxes, we’re going to have to sharpen the pen.”
Asked about how he would work with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who was re-elected last week, Sales said he is hoping both the Legislature and governor show restraint this session. Bullock vetoed a record number of Republican bills in 2015.
Sen. Fred Thomas of Stevensville ran unopposed for Senate majority leader.
On the Senate Democratic side, Sen. Jon Sesso of Butte again was elected minority leader, defeating Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula.
“The Democratic agenda is going to be just as forceful as it’s always been,” Sesso told reporters. “We have a couple fewer numbers in the Senate than we have in the past. But our agenda is the same, and that is to advance the good ideas to solve the problems in the state of Montana.”
He said Montana voters have spoken and want change focusing on working class Montanans and jobs and making sure all Montanans are treated fairly.
“We’re willing to work with the Republicans,” Sesso said. “They have the majority, and in the past, it’s been my experience, they’ve respected the minority party. We’re going to advance what the public has asked us to get done. We’ve got to do something on infrastructure. We’ve got to make some investments. I hope that rancor of the last session melts away, because there is no debate between cash and bonding anymore.”
On another legislative issue, Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, told Republican senators that she and Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, want to push for creation of a special legislative committee to investigate the state Department of Public Health and Human Services on certain issues.