HELENA (AP) — Republicans given historic margins in the next Legislature say their focus should be on smaller government and lower taxes — a message reminiscent of 16 years ago when voter resentment of Democrats in Washington D.C. also gave the GOP huge majorities back in Montana.
Republicans will hold a nearly unprecedented governing majority in the state House that convenes in January, probably as many as 68 seats once a few of the tightest races are certified by election officials. It is among the largest governing majorities either party has ever held in the chamber.
Back in 1994, voter backlash against then-President Bill Clinton and his policies not only ushered in big changes in Congress but also at the Montana Legislature. Republicans were given control of the Montana Legislature for this first time since 1953 — and in a big way — with 67 of 100 House seats and 31 of 50 state Senate seats.
The GOP at that time, pushing for less government and more individual freedom, rolled back programs, spurned federal funding, softened environmental laws and gave businesses a tax break.
Discontent with Obama helped GOP
This election, voter resentment of national Democrats and President Barack Obama's issues again drove voters to stack the House for the GOP.
And again, Republicans are promising smaller government and a rollback in environmental restraints to business.
"We need to recognize why were elected as Republicans," said Rep. Mike Milburn, a Cascade Republican who will be running to become House Speaker. "We need to all band together and head down that same road."
Milburn said fiscal issues like cutting spending and reducing taxes while spurring the economy by easing environmental restrictions are what voters wanted.
"That's our focus, in those areas," he said.
Social issues not key
But social issues like restricting abortion are still important to many Republicans, although they did not play a central role in the elections. With a 68-seat majority in the House, such initiatives are very likely to surface again even if leaders don't want to make them the focus of their agenda.
In 1995, the social issues proved to be a bit of a stumbling block. Lawmakers then decided to require lifetime registration of gays convicted of homosexual sex — at the time illegal in Montana. They backed down under widespread criticism and nationwide attention.
GOP warned not to go too far
Sen. Carol Williams, a Missoula Democrat and veteran of Montana politics, warned Republicans not to go too far again. She said the GOP got many votes from those protesting Washington D.C. policies, and didn't get swept in by a throng of voters who love the entire GOP platform.
"Republicans should be real pleased with how this went, but they shouldn't drink the Kool-Aid, because it can turn on them real quick," she said after Tuesday's election. "They shouldn't be taking liberties on fringe issues."
Sen. Jeff Essmann, the Billings Republican who helped orchestrate the GOP election effort, said there is no doubt that fiscal issues are the top priority, including plans to block state expansion of health care programs and implementation rules as part of the federal health care bill.
"I would be highly surprised if the next Legislature supports a continued waste of money in that fashion," Essmann said. "I think the people in this nation and this state spoke very loudly about what they think of that bill."
The GOP plans to push a so-called health care freedom act, like seen in a few other states, that says government cannot require people to have health insurance nor penalize people who choose to use their own money to pay medical bills. The new federal law requires people to have health insurance or face penalties beginning in 2014.
Put checkbook online
Essmann said tax increases would have to be looked at carefully since budget cuts may be needed just to balance the books. The GOP wants to put the state's "checkbook" online for all to see, systematically review effectiveness of government programs, and promote resource industry and other jobs.
But social issues will also be part of the GOP agenda, he said. Essmann supports required parental notification for abortions.
"I think there will be work to do something on that issue," he said.
Republicans feel like the voters have given them a clear mandate.
"I think they were trying to send us a message, send the country a message on Tuesday," Essmann said. "I am going to work hard if elected to Republican leadership in the Senate to keep listening to the voters in the state of Montana. That is our obligation, and I look forward to doing it."