2015 Legislature leadership caucuses

Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, speaks to Senate Republicans during the 2015 leadership caucuses. Barrett is the first female president of the Montana State Senate - Tribune photo Larry Beckner.

Republicans on elected the first female president of the Montana Senate by picking Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, to lead the majority caucus.

Barrett, who has served 14 years in the Montana Legislature, was the favorite of the more conservative members of the GOP Senate caucus, which outnumbers Democrats 29-21 in the 2015 session.

Lawmakers in the House picked Culbertson Republican Rep. Austin Knudsen to lead that body as speaker. Republicans enjoy a 59-41 majority in the House.

Austin KnudsenRepublicans are hoping to bounce back from a tumultuous 2013 session that saw ideological fissures fracture the party as Republicans openly criticized each other on the Senate floor. Some of the more centrist members of the caucus worked with Senate Democrats and Gov. Steve Bullock, also a Democrat, to pass a handful of key bills last session, including measures to shore-up the state employee pay plan and fund education.

The bitterness spilled over into the 2014 primary election season as individuals from both factions went after each other in heated intraparty contests in June.

Barrett, who defeated Sen. Rick Ripley of Wolf Creek, promised to unify the party and avoid a repeat of last session’s acrimony.

“My goal is to have a smooth and respectful session, with no ‘gotcha’ moments allowed on the Senate floor between senators,” Barrett said.

Ripley, who was seen by some of the more centrist members of the party as a possible bridge between the two factions in the caucus, said the strength of the caucus would come from its 29 members. Ripley called for an end to the “bickering, backstabbing and hatred,” that permeated throughout the caucus in 2013.

“We must work together or all of Montana loses,” Ripley said.

Senate President-elect Debby Barrett, R-Dillon.
Senate President-elect Debby Barrett, R-Dillon.

Barrett said she wants the caucus to focus on policies that move the state forward, including cutting government spending, improving state infrastructure and growing the economy.

“I’m going to listen to all senators, Republicans and Democrats,” Barrett said. “I will work with the House to form a cohesive message when working with the executive branch.”

House Republicans voted in members of leadership Wednesday morning who promised to help uphold conservative values and fight Bullock’s agenda, which they characterized as focused on growing state government.

Knudsen was chosen to lead the House over Great Falls Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick and Randy Brohdehl of Kalispell.

“I’m excited about the Republican Party,” Knudsen said in his speech to the majority party. “I am ready to be your speaker on Day One.”

Consistent comments by party leadership candidates throughout the caucus focused on creating a more consistent message from the Republican Party and upholding conservative values.

Before and after being elected speaker, Knudsen said Montana voters care about three issues: the economy, jobs and natural resource development. By electing a Republican Legislature, Knudsen said, Montana voters showed they believe in the Republican agenda.

Senate Republicans elected Glendive Sen. Matt Rosendale as the majority leader and Eric Moore of Miles City to round out the top leadership positions. Sen. Carey Smith, R-Billings, a majority whip in the House last session, will serve in the same position in the Senate in 2015 alongside Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls.

In the House Republican caucus, lawmakers elected Kalispell Rep. Keith Regier as Republican majority leader and Lee Randall of Broadus as speaker pro tempore.

Northcentral Montana Republican House members said they were pleased with the new leadership.

Randy Pinocci, R-Great Falls, said he’s no stranger to tension, having twice run in a Republican primary, losing the first time and proving successful in 2014. Pinocci said he’s hopeful for what his party can accomplish in the next session and is enthusiastic about the leadership Knudsen will provide House Republicans.

“I’m hoping the House is able to meet the goals of the people we’re elected to represent,” Pinocci said.

Pinocci said he and Knudsen met before last week’s election and discussed addressing more conservative values in the upcoming session — such as water rights and property rights.

Christy Clark, R-Choteau, said she thinks there is a nice cross section of experienced and new representatives serving in leadership roles. Though it’s a competitive process to be elected into a party leadership position, she doesn’t believe the rest of the session will be contentious within the Republican Party.

“I think that rift is behind us,” Clark said. “We are all looking forward to a good session.”

The Democrats, who remain in the minority in both Houses after the Nov. 4 elections, also chose their leaders Wednesday. The leadership at the top remains the same as it was during the 2013 Legislature. Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, will serve again as minority leader in the House and Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, will lead Senate Democrats.

Hunter said House Democrats will look to moderate Republicans to align with them on several bills as they did last session. He said Democratic priorities include early childhood education and helping more low-income Montanans get health insurance coverage whether through Medicaid expansion or some other way.

“We’ll be looking to build majorities with those on the other side,” Hunter said, adding that Republican leadership appears even more conservative than in 2013.

Many lawmakers will spend today and Friday in orientation sessions mostly geared to new lawmakers. The full body will return to the state Capitol on Jan. 5 to convene the 64th session of the Montana Legislature.