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Minority Leader Kim Abbott stays the course
The Helena Democrat defends her party's strategy and highlights '23 priorities.
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Howdy, one and all. And to those who celebrate, Happy almost-Hannukah! May you savor the brisket, the potato pancakes and the exhausting search for enough gifts for your loved ones to last the whole eight nights.
Thanks so much for tuning in to our interview with Representative Kim Abbott, the Montana House Minority Leader. Originally from Ohio, Representative Abbott moved to Helena nearly twenty years ago. The imminent 2023 session will mark her fourth term in the state legislature, and second as House Minority Leader.
But this session, the equation will be different. In the November elections, the GOP picked up a net four seats across the state House and Senate. As a result, the Republican Party now controls the legislature with a supermajority that will likely require very little, if any, support from Democrats to pass its agenda.
My conversation with Representative Abbott focuses on how the Democratic Party—under her leadership—plans to react to this new political dynamic. We talk about her party’s priorities and the policy areas that offer some room for agreement with the GOP.
Representative Abbott also assesses her party’s performance in November, and explains why she believes the legislature isn’t the appropriate venue for “transformative change.”
Max: What does the position of minority leader entail?
Representative Kim Abbott: The minority leader position is really about communicating with caucus members, developing a shared strategy, executing that strategy and being the primary person communicating with key stakeholders, whether that's the police union, school districts or healthcare advocates. It also involves a lot of message development for the caucus, and strategy around how we talk about our priorities.
Montana Free Press reported that in the race for Minority Leader, your opponent, Representative Marilyn Marler, pushed for more vocal opposition to GOP policies in the coming session. How does your approach differ from hers?
The caucus's decision speaks to where we want to go, and [that’s] to focus on our priorities, and to work with Republicans wherever we can work with them, and hold them accountable where we cannot.
We have a really good agenda around policies that'll make Montana's economy work for working families. And that includes property tax relief, workforce housing and affordable housing generally, and affordable and accessible childcare. And where we can work with the governor and Republicans to advance [other] policies that we think are targeted to middle class and working class families in Montana and improve our communities and our economy.
When [the Republicans’] policies are focused on the wealthiest people and out-of-state corporations, we're going to point that out and we're going to be fiercely opposed to that.
Which specific GOP policies do you anticipate that the Democratic caucus will oppose this session?
We'll have to take a look, but the tax proposals [that] are targeted at giving the greatest benefit to the wealthiest Montanans—and leaving working class and middle class Montanans behind—will get a lot of opposition from the Democratic caucus.
We think that the benefit of tax cuts and tax relief should be targeted in a very specific way—at the people who need it the most. And from our view that is working class, middle class Montanans who are getting pinched by cost of living increases, having trouble staying in their houses, having trouble finding childcare. Affordable housing and childcare access are directly connected to businesses’ ability to hire, and Montanans being able to work in the communities [where they live].
Can you tell me a little more about the workforce housing trust fund bill that you requested?
Sure. We're looking to put $500 million into a workforce trust fund that would be an ongoing revenue source with the goal of enhancing public-private partnerships to actually build housing that's affordable. That would look like public financing to a certain extent, and the details will get developed as we get into drafting.
Governor Gianforte proposed a child tax credit in the upcoming state budget. Is there a gap between that proposal and what you think would be sufficient?
We don't have all the details on the governor's child tax credit proposal. What we know is that it looks like it's a maximum of $1,200. We don't know exactly how it's structured, whether it's refundable or whether he plans for it to be permanent, but from our view it should definitely be refundable, should definitely be permanent, and it should probably be higher.
How much higher would be sufficient?
It depends on the other income tax proposals that are targeted at middle class and working class families. For example, if we were able to move a generous earned income tax credit, we may be able to move the child tax credit to $2,000.
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It sounds like this is an area where there's at least some room for consensus with the GOP. What other areas qualify as such?
Well, I don't know about consensus, but I think that there's definitely some place for compromise with the child tax credit. I think there's some room to move on provider rates and other policies that will help increase access to [affordable] healthcare for Montanans.
The other place where clearly there's some energy is around property tax [relief]. We have a proposal to do one-time property tax rebates that are tied to folks’ income and then ongoing permanent property tax relief that would basically ensure that a family's property tax bill didn't rise higher than their household income can afford. The mechanism there would be a tax credit.
Localities need their portion of property taxes to pay teachers, firefighters or [to fund] public health and safety and public education. We want to make sure that localities are still getting their portion of property taxes.
Switching gears, were you surprised by the election results in November? What takeaways do you have from the election?
In general, I think Democratic performance was pretty good. I've said over and over again that our legislative districts haven't held up. They haven't been durable and they aren't reflecting the two party vote share at this point in the state. Now, obviously, we're going through the redistricting process and I think the districts will get reset to be a lot more fair and representative.
We went into the elections holding six seats [in districts] that Trump had won. The only seats that we lost—other than House District 48—were seats that Trump had won in 2020. We flipped two seats that Trump had won [Paul Tuss in HD 28 and Jonathan Karlen in HD 96].
So in the first midterm of a Democratic presidency, I feel like we performed really pretty well across the state in our legislative races.
In terms of my takeaways from the election results, I think there were a couple really interesting things. One is that after hearing a lot of criticism from Republicans about the [state Supreme] Court and the need for changes to the Supreme Court, we saw both incumbents elected by very safe margins, including one that was a real focus: the [Justice Ingrid] Gustafson versus [Jim] Brown race.
What that says to me is that Montanans think that the Supreme Court is doing a good job, and that they value the constitutional rights and the way they've been interpreted by the court, which was Montana Democrats’ assumption.
And then the Born Alive referendum was defeated. That tells me that Montanans really value the rights of privacy and the way that it's been implemented to protect the right to abortion. It's nice to see that in black and white in the election results.
A couple weeks ago, I spoke to Keegan Medrano at ACLU of Montana. They described the Montana Democratic Party, in its current state, as “an instrument to stunt transformative change.” How do you respond to that comment?
I'm not sure that partisan politics and legislative work is the way that you achieve transformational change. I think that those structures are built for compromise and moderation, by their very nature.
I just think that probably the legislature's not the tool for transformational change. I think that it's an avenue for really important impactful policies like Medicaid expansion, which insured a hundred thousand Montanans and definitely saved people's lives. It definitely saves our system money.
If Keegan wants to change the Democratic Party, there's lots of opportunities to engage with the Democratic Party. We have local central committees everywhere that you can run, you can be on the board, you can run for office yourself.
On a related note, going forward, do you anticipate that the party will change its strategy around recruiting candidates?
No, I think that the quality of our candidates this last cycle was pretty incredible.
Whether it's Paul Tuss up in Hill County, or Denise Baum in Yellowstone County or Sharon Stewart Peregoy in Crow Agency, these are talented people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. I’m really proud of the candidates we recruited this last cycle.
We're always looking for candidates that reflect their community, are deeply engaged in their community, want to deliver for their community, and want to work hard talking to voters in order to do that. So we'll continue to look for those types of Democrats wherever there's interest and energy.
Lastly, you mentioned messaging at the beginning of our conversation. Will the party shift its messaging strategy, specifically in rural communities?
Democratic policies are really good for rural Montana. We are the party that invests in infrastructure around public schools and hospitals in rural Montana. We've been good on Right to Repair and a bunch of really important agricultural policies.
The question is just a long-term relationship with communities that haven't been engaging with the Democratic Party as much. And we understand that's a long-term conversation with rural Montana to show what we've delivered as Democrats to those communities and listen to how we could better represent [them].
To the extent that we can communicate that more clearly and have that conversation be a true authentic back-and-forth, that's something that we're definitely interested in, but I don't think that a change in message is going to improve relationships in rural Montana.
All of those policies need to be communicated effectively. And I think that's where we have a lot of work to do. I don't think using a different word is what's going to change things. I think the authenticity of the conversation is going change things.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
I think it's trying to meet folks [in person]. There's lots of Democrats in rural Montana, right? There aren't a ton of competitive Democratic legislative seats, but there's lots of Democrats. And so making sure that we're reaching out to Democrats in those communities, making sure that we're showing up in those communities where we can and when we can to engage in longer conversations. I think we've started to do that. Our caucus is committed to getting out across Montana. We'll continue to do that, but we recognize that this isn't a short term shift; this is a long-term conversation we have to have.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading. We’ll be back next week with a wide-reaching interview with one of Montana’s most prominent advocates for housing reform.
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.