When the ‘Solutions Caucus’ did - and didn’t - vote with Dems
HELENA - The highest-profile bill in the 2019 Montana Legislature, a measure renewing the state’s 2015 Medicaid expansion, was opposed by the official leadership of the House and Senate Republican majorities. It passed anyway.
The reason: A bloc of comparatively moderate Republicans - the self-described Solutions Caucus - broke party ranks to vote with Democrats in support of the bill.
The Medicaid measure, authored by Solutions Caucus Republican Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, was far from the only major vote that broke along similar lines - to the dismay of right-wing Republicans.
“Our caucus seems to have become two separate minorities, one of which differed with my values and my beliefs,” said Majority Leader Brad Tschida, a conservative Republican from Missoula, in his closing remarks on the House Floor April 25.
The day before, the House’s cohort of staunch conservative Republicans, who’ve taken to calling themselves the “38 Specials” in a nod to the bullet cartridge, organized a group photo that deliberately excluded their Solutions Caucus-aligned peers.
“The voters of Montana will need to increase our numbers in the next election cycle if they truly want change,” wrote Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, as she posted the image to her Facebook profile.
“You get into the ring and you work to solve problems,” Solutions Caucus leader Rep. Llew Jones said on the MTFP Montana Lowdown podcast.
‘Solutions’ to the left
Among the measures that have hard-right Republicans wringing their hands are bills increasing Montana’s aviation fuel tax (House Bill 661), investment licensing fees (House Bill 694), and bed taxes (Senate Bill 338), the last of which will provide funding for a new state historical museum in Helena.
An infrastructure bonding measure (House Bill 652) also passed the Legislature with little GOP support beyond the Solutions Caucus, authorizing $80 million in state debt to fund public buildings, bridges, and water projects across the state. Additionally, Solutions Caucus Republicans sided with Democrats to pass a party central committee reform bill stemming from GOP party infighting (House Bill 318) and to kill a Manzella-sponsored measure (House Bill 575) that would have exempted Montana day cares from most child-immunization requirements.
‘Solutions’ to the right
Even so, not every major issue before the Legislature saw the Solutions Caucus side with Democrats.
Nearly every House GOP lawmaker, for example, voted in support of an anti-abortion constitutional referendum that would have asked 2020 voters to explicitly define personhood as beginning at conception. Reps. Bruce Grubbs, R-Bozeman, and Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, were the two exceptions.
Republicans also voted as a nearly cohesive bloc for measures to exempt Social Security benefits from state income taxes (Senate Bill 217), require county commissions to endorse wild bison transfers into their jurisdictions (House Bill 332), and deny supplemental nutrition assistance benefits to parents who don’t cooperate with the state child-support program (House Bill 290).
Much of that united-GOP legislation, however, has run afoul of Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Bullock vetoed the Social Security tax and nutrition assistance bills April 18, for example. As of May 2, he had yet to take action on the bison measure.
The anti-abortion referendum would have gone on the ballot with or without the governor’s endorsement, but failed to win the two-thirds supermajority it needed in the combined House and Senate.
Across the spectrum
Additionally, much of the Legislature’s business had broad-based support among Democrats and both wings of the Republican Party.
Miles City Republican Rep. Eric Moore’s IDEA Act (House Bill 553), which set up a new framework for bonding infrastructure projects and managing state debt, attracted near-unanimous support. Hanna’s Act (House Bill 21), designed to help the state do a better job locating missing Native women, passed the House with almost universal support, and picked up both Solutions Caucus members and a few hard-line Republicans in the Senate.
Several routine spending measures - among them an inflation-linked increase in school funding (House Bill 159) and the state employee pay plan (House Bill 175) - also passed with across-the-spectrum support, though a number of right-wing Republicans who initially voted for the employee pay plan in the House switched to opposition in its final votes.
Other vote patterns
Inevitably, with lawmakers weighing in on more than 1,100 bills over the course of the session, not every vote broke down neatly with the Solutions Caucus as a swing bloc. For example, House Bill 293, a measure offering production companies tax incentives to shoot films in Montana, attracted substantial support from conservative Republicans in the House, if less in the Senate. Similarly, a bill to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day passed the House with GOP support split between Solutions Caucus and non-Solutions Caucus Republicans.
The state’s primary budget bill (House Bill 2) and a tax credit for businesses that add jobs (Senate Bill 266) also passed with middle-of-the-road majorities comprising Solutions Caucus Republicans, some Democrats, and some right-wing Republicans.
A similar dynamic played out with one of the Solutions Caucus’s few legislative defeats, the Save Colstrip bill (Senate Bill 331), which attracted majority support in early voting but was ultimately defeated in the House by opposition from both Democrats and many right-wing Republicans.
Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer based in Helena. He is the lead reporter on the Long Streets Project and also covers state policy for Montana Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-544-1074.