The committee leadership votes were a marked contrast from the last in-house elections two years ago when conservative Republicans claimed nearly all the available chairmanships. Democrats and even some moderate Republicans blasted the 2017 votes as a partisan power grab, while conservatives argued that it better reflected the GOP-dominated state.
This year, Democrats won four of the 14 standing committee chairmanships. Democrats gained seats in the November general elections but are still heavily outnumbered by Republicans.
Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said the atmosphere of the first day was notably better Wednesday than it was after the GOP sweep two years ago. He said he’s hopeful it translates into a session where lawmakers are more willing to work together and communicate.
“If you look at (senators) as they left the floor this morning, everyone was smiling. They were shaking hands. They were slapping backs,” Scheer said. “Two years ago, that was not happening.”
The Legislature is now composed of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats, and one left-leaning independent. Despite their majority, GOP senators won’t have enough votes by themselves to overcome legislative filibusters.
Thirteen newly elected and appointed state lawmakers were sworn into office Wednesday, and another 13 who were re-elected began new four-year terms. Scheer, a Republican, was re-elected to his leadership post.
Scheer said he has always tried to act with integrity, fairness, and consistency in the position, which he first won two years ago. He said he won’t give special treatment to any one senator and will treat the one-house, nonpartisan Legislature with respect.
Gov. Pete Ricketts will be sworn into office for a second term on Thursday.
The new session begins with an expected focus on the state’s budget challenges. Lawmakers face a projected $95 million revenue shortfall in their upcoming two-year budget. They also will consider proposals to legalize medical marijuana, change prison sentencing laws to reduce overcrowding, and expand a tax break to military retirees.
Ricketts has pledged to introduce a new property tax package, a major concern of farmers, ranchers, and homeowners whose property tax bills have soared in recent years.
Lawmakers will spend the first 10 days of the session introducing new bills.