- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers said at the opening of the legislative session Monday that they will work together and show respect for one another after a contentious session in 2013.

House Republicans and Democrats elected as the new House speaker Rep. Austin Knudsen, a 33-year-old lawyer from Culbertson. Knudsen said he looks forward to a productive session.

“We here in this body can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said.

Knudson also told members of the House that his role is not one of a dictator and said he’d work with them on their goals for the session.

But Knudsen’s comments come as a proposed rule change in the House would give him more power over the fate of House bills. The change would call for a super-majority vote instead of a simple majority vote to overrule Knudsen’s decisions to kill bills by sending them to certain committees. The House Rules Committee will take up the proposed rule changes in a meeting Tuesday, and House Democrats say they will fight the change.

Newly-elected Senate President Debby Barrett, 62, said she wants the 64th Legislature to run smoothly. The rancher from Dillon said the Republican Party is united for this session after dealing with a party divided between conservative and more moderate Republicans last session.

The moments when lawmakers don’t agree shouldn’t mean a loss of respect for one another, Barrett said. “I hope that after this 90-day session is over we can all go back home with our heads held high and show our constituents what we’ve accomplished,” she said.

Barrett said a joint action plan released Monday by Republicans in the Senate and House is the first such plan she’s seen in her 14 years as a lawmaker and that the unified message will show Montanans their dedication to lawmaking. The plan focuses on bills that they say will strengthen the economy, improve education opportunities, safeguard health-care options and protect the rights of individuals.

Republicans hold a 59-41 majority in the House and a 29-21 majority in the Senate, and both Knudsen and Barrett were elected without opposition Monday. This session’s elected GOP leadership is on the more conservative end of the party spectrum.

Even with the promises to work together, the governor’s office remains in the hands of Democrat Steve Bullock, and the parties differ widely on priorities.

But Bullock has pledged to work with any lawmakers who want to “get stuff done,” as happened last session when some Republicans worked with him to pass the state budget and other priorities.

He and those in the Democratic House and Senate minority said they’ll be pushing Medicaid expansion, preschool, a continued freeze on college tuition and campaign-finance reform, among other items during the session.

Democratic House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena said the 41 House Democrats look forward to working across the aisle. “We have more in common than separates us,” he said.

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