The results of the nation’s only competitive governor’s race this election will likely have stark consequences for Montana residents. Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte pulled off a victory in a competitive race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, with 51.4 percent of the vote on Tuesday night to Cooney’s 44.9 percent. Gianforte, who as of 2018 was the richest member of the House, gained fame in his 2017 campaign for Congress when he shoved a reporter covering his campaign.
Republicans currently control the state legislature and are expected to retain control after the elections. A leaked document shows that the state GOP is planning a comprehensive assault on workers’ rights as well as to end limits on campaign contributions, to abolish the state’s campaign finance regulation board, to mandate ultrasounds prior to abortions, and to freeze state spending.
“Montana has had 16 years of Democrat Governor’s vetoes that have stiffed our business environment, inhibited growth, and frustrated Montanan’s liberties,” the document, entitled “Montana House Top Priorities,” reads. “Many Republicans from across the state have given input into this draft blueprint for the 2021 session. It is an evolving draft that provides options for the House Republican Caucus.” The internal Republican memo, which was first obtained by the Montana Post and subsequently reported by MTN News, contains over 60 legislative priorities.
Gianforte has been campaigning on vague promises to improve schools, lower taxes, and reduce regulations. “Greg believes our education dollars should go to our classrooms, students and teachers, not eaten up by bureaucracy,” his website reads. Likewise, Gianforte’s slightly more detailed “Montana Comeback Plan” pledges increased teacher pay.
By contrast, the document shows that state Republicans are planning a large expansion of so-called school choice, including tax credits to attend private and parochial schools as well as tuition grants coming from public education dollars. The proposed freezing of state spending and property tax cuts means that there would be little left for teacher pay increases.
The document pledges that Republicans will weaken or repeal outright Montana’s unique protections for worker rights. The state is the only one in the nation without default at-will employment; at-will means an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason that isn’t illegal. Montana specially requires employers to have a valid cause to terminate an employee after a probationary period, typically six months from date of hire. The document pledges either to eliminate the requirement or to increase the probationary period to 12 months.
In election law, the GOP draft pledges to expand voter ID rules; end same-day voter registration; to eliminate the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, who regulates campaign finances in the state; and create closed primaries where only voters affiliated with a given political party can vote. The latter is critical to a goal, set by corporate interests, to rid the state of moderate Republicans who vote against their agenda, which was detailed in the 2018 documentary “Dark Money.” (“Dark Money” was co-funded by Topic Studios, which is part of First Look Media, along with The Intercept.)
The Montana House GOP also pledges in the document to end dues collection for public sector unions, a top legislative priority for Charles Koch. While the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME removed mandatory payments to unions for the cost of representation, so-called paycheck deception would hamper unions by forcing them to collect dues themselves instead of allowing employees to deduct it from their paycheck. Koch Industries has donated $500,000 this cycle to the Republican Governors Association, which is spending at least $8 million to elect Gianforte. Similar legislation has passed in Missouri and Iowa, and resulted in significant union member drop-off. The document also pledges to end prevailing wage rules for state construction projects, which would be a major blow to building trade unions in the state.
The Democrat, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, previously served three terms as Montana’s elected secretary of state. While Gianforte outspent Cooney $6.4 million to $2 million, the Democratic Governors Association and other pro-Cooney outside groups outspent pro-Gianforte groups $11 million to $8.25 million.
“We want to hit the ground running,” state Rep. Derek Skees, who helped to create the document, told MTN News. “We want to capitalize on having a Republican governor. … We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of us are focused on getting it done.”
Update: November 9, 2020
This story has been updated to include that the memo was first reported by The Montana Post.