HELENA — Republicans soon to hold a majority in the Montana House picked a leader on Wednesday who promised a pragmatic approach to spending cuts, as well as a long-term strategy to shrinking government.
State Rep. Mike Milburn, of Cascade, was picked by fellow Republicans as their new speaker during legislative leadership elections, a tempered choice compared to Rep. Krayton Kerns, a Laurel lawmaker who cast himself as an ardent tea party favorite.
Milburn said both he and Kerns are very conservative, but simply have a different approach. Milburn, a rancher and retired Air Force pilot, said all the Republicans have agreed on the big issues.
Republicans want less spending, more taxes
The GOP promised to push for staples like less spending and lower taxes, but also to dismantle or ease environmental laws they see as detrimental to development of natural resource industries. The Republicans also argued that the Legislature must do what it can to stop implementation of federal health care reform in Montana.
State Republicans will hold a 68-32 advantage in the House and a 28-22 lead in the Senate when the Legislature convenes in January. They were still reveling in the huge election wins that saw them turn out many incumbent Democrats.
"We have to have a strong majority, and that's what we have today," Rep. Tom McGillvray, of Billings, said. "We will exert our sovereignty and stop Obamacare at the borders."
Peterson, Essmann tapped
Senate Republicans picked Buffalo rancher Sen. Jim Peterson to lead that chamber, and Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings, who helped orchestrate the Republican legislative campaign strategy, will be majority leader.
McGillvray, who helped run the GOP's election strategy, was elected the House's majority leader and said the 2012 elections need to be on their minds as they advance an agenda this session.
Key races for an open governor's seat and a Republican challenge to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester can all be helped by what legislative Republicans do, he added.
Democrats reeling from big losses this month chose familiar faces for their leaders and issued a warning to Republicans not to overreach with fringe issues.
Williams to head Senate Dems
Sen. Carol Williams, of Missoula, was elected again to lead Democrats in the House with the help of Sen. Kim Gillan of Billing. She said Republican ideas to gut the Montana Environmental Protection Act and other such laws will not be popular with most residents.
"Those are marginal issues that the majority of Montanans don't agree with," Williams said. "I hope they don't focus on a lot fringe issues that end up taking up a lot of our time."
Milburn promised to use the House majority to push for less spending so that taxes can be cut, and to push back against federal health care reform and wolf management. But he also promised to give Democrats a voice in the process and not let Republicans get overconfident with their recent election wins.
Milburn said planned cuts to government will stretch across education, social programs, and all of government.
"It is going to be a tough session," Milburn told his colleagues. "We are going to be cutting into these areas that affect your communities.
"We have to have optimism that it will be better in the end," he said.
Kerns, after losing his bid for the top spot, promised to "fight with tenacity" in the trenches, and to back Milburn's leadership. He promised to make sure Republicans don't back away from a strong conservative platform he believes the voters want.
"I am not afraid to carry the controversial bill, and we will do what we can to fundamentally change the government," Kerns said. "If we allow government to grow, we are dead. If we do, this will be the shortest love affair from voters ever."
Governors want more money for education
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed spending plan, which was released Monday, increased spending in core areas like education — and repealed the business equipment tax for all but the biggest businesses. It also offered homeowners a property tax rebate of $150 over two years.
Republicans embraced cutting the business equipment tax, but want to do it for all businesses. They argued more cutting is needed because Schweitzer is balancing the budget by raiding pots of money that won't be around to fund programs down the road.
House Democrats, facing a minor role, elected Rep. Jon Sesso of Butte as minority leader and Rep. Betsy Hands of Missoula as caucus leader.