(UM Legislative News Service) Montana’s House members were debating a constitutional change to the state’s tax system when Bitterroot Valley Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance stood to speak on the bill.
She didn’t mince any words.
The proposed legislation, called the Taxpayer Protection Act, would prohibit the state from implementing taxes other than income, property and statewide sales taxes, and not more than two at a time. It aims to limit state revenue collected from taxes and is sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who serves as a whip in Republican party leadership.
Ballance said she was told the bill was proposed because it would look good to conservative voters, even though it was unlikely to pass. She rebuked the motive.
“My concern is that [constituents] won’t see it as a sound bite, they’ll see us as too ignorant on tax policy to understand what we’re doing,” Ballance said.
The bill failed on second reading in the House 38-62.
The lawmaker from Hamilton is serving her fourth term as a representative. Her second year in elected office, Ballance was appointed as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, a powerful position. She was the sole chair of appropriations for two sessions, but this session, she almost lost the job. Speaker of the House Greg Hertz gave the chairmanship to Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila. Ballance had run against Hertz for the speakership.
“It did not sit well with me because I believe strongly that you put someone in a position like that because they have the experience and the knowledge, not for political reasons,” Ballance said in an interview.
Ballance didn’t back down. She said she told leadership she should be a chair. Now, she’s a co-chair with Glimm.
Hertz said in an interview his goal this session is to unify the Republican Party, which has seen rifts in recent sessions over big issues like Medicaid expansion. He said he appointed Glimm as chair, and then named Ballance as co-chair. He said the decision was made because both legislators are respected by the Republican caucus.
“I don’t see it [as a demotion]. She’s doing an excellent job,” Hertz said, and while he didn’t elaborate, he also said politics did play a role in the appointment.
Ballance has long been seen as hard-line conservative, and describes herself as one.
In 2014, she submitted a candidate Q&A to the Missoulian outlining her political stances, which included strong opposition to abortion, opposition to legalizing gay marriage, opposition to Medicaid expansion and support of transferring federal public lands to state management.
But, she’s also fiercely independent and her move to retain her seat at the head of the appropriations committee set the tone for Ballance this session — doing what she believes to be most effective.
The appropriations chair oversees six subcommittees that decide on funding for government agencies and are tasked with constructing a balanced budget. The job requires a deep understanding of economics and finance.
Ballance, a California-native, has a background in computer programming. Although Ballance dropped out of college, she worked her way up at IBM. Next, Ballance became an executive at Farmers Insurance, which was bought by international firm Zurich Insurance Group. She retired after a 40-plus-year career and moved to Hamilton with her husband to be closer to family.
But she didn’t really retire. Ballance ran for the local school board, and then the Montana Legislature, and won. Being a citizen legislator is a part-time job, except for the interim work and the campaigning it requires. The now 71-year-old will term out of the House in 2020.
Ballance says some of her views have softened over the years, especially on health and human services issues.
She recently joined the Solutions Caucus, a group of Republicans who sometimes vote independently of party leadership. Considering she started as a hard-line conservative, her joining the caucus surprised the self-described “far-left” Democrat Rep. Tom Woods of Bozeman, who has served on the appropriations committee with Ballance for four sessions now. He said he’s seen Ballance evolve.
“All representatives are changed by the process, and we learn about how other people think, and how other people perceive the world,” Woods said.
Woods said when he was a freshman legislator, he didn’t talk much to colleagues across the aisle. Now a few sessions in, he said he’s established a good working relationship with Ballance, someone who has nearly opposite ideologies to his.
“I’ve always been able to count on Nancy Ballance to respect the process, and to not play games with the rules,” Woods said.
One issue she’s changed her mind on is one of the biggest political debates of this session: Medicaid expansion. She said originally she opposed funding any type of entitlement program. Ballance voted against the government-subsidized healthcare program both in 2013 and 2015 because she said there wasn’t enough research to show what the program would look like or who it would serve.
Now, Ballance says the program has proven beneficial to the state, socially and economically.
“I can’t ignore that for blind ideology,” Ballance said. “So that’s where your ideology kind of clashes with what you see in terms of real benefits for people.”
Ballance said she will support the program this session with added limits, like testing enrollees for assets and implementing work requirements, so that the subsidy is “going to the people who need it.”
Fellow Republican and veteran Montana legislator, Llew Jones, worked closely with Ballance while she was head of appropriations and he was chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. Jones is now back in the House, and he and Ballance are both members of the Solutions Caucus.
Jones said he understands why Ballance’s political views may have evolved. He said working in appropriations gives clarity to issues that not every lawmaker gets to see.
“Nancy is a conservative, but she recognizes that hospitals have to stay open, and schools have to serve kids,” Jones said.
Jones is known in the Legislature to be a master of fiscal policy, and often works on fiscal and budget issues. He said he’s found an equal in Ballance. Jones said he often wonders if people recognize Ballance as the powerhouse she is.
“We are very, very fortunate that level of talent is willing to engage with [Montana’s Legislature],” Jones said.
Ballance is modest about her accomplishments.
At one point, Ballance was 35th in the U.S. for adult amateur horse jumping, a sport she picked up in her 40s. She said she had never ridden a horse before, but saw a competition and thought: “That’s what I want to do.” But, she gives her horse, Lavall, a Holsteiner she imported from Germany, credit for her success.
“The only way to compensate for a not-so-good rider is to have a great horse,” Ballance said.
And while modest, she by no means hides her abilities. Ballance said her final project at Zurich Insurance Group was to facilitate and help build a multinational insurance system with eight different CEOs from eight different countries. She said the challenge prepared her for the Legislature.
“You walk in [to negotiations], everybody’s got one vote and you don’t hold anybody’s paycheck. You have no way to influence them other than through knowledge and facts and experience,” Ballance said.
As a female executive for a major corporation, Ballance said she could not shy away from inserting herself into business and leadership positions. Although she said she tries not to think about gender when she’s at work, it’s something that influenced her career.
“There’s no question about it. You work at least twice as hard and have to prove yourself every day,” Ballance said.
What’s worse, she said, is people who thought she got to the top through affirmative action. For this reason, Ballance tried to avoid discussing the role of gender in the workplace.
Then, last session, a fifth-grade class visited the Legislature and sat in on an appropriations committee hearing. The teacher told Ballance that afterward she asked her class what they thought of the hearing. A young girl raised her hand and said, “Well, there was a woman running the meeting.”
“Girls do need to see what’s possible,” Ballance said. “It made me think, ‘OK, it is important to be a role model for women.’”
When Ballance is not at the Legislature, she can be found in her woodworking shop, which was featured in Woodcraft Magazine, or spending time with her two grandsons, Jack, 10, and Reed, 4. The eldest likes to visit his grandma at the Capitol, and has been known to testify on bills when the occasion arises. He plans to run for governor one day, Ballance said.
Ballance will be ineligible to run for the House after 2020, meaning this is her last session as a representative. She’s not sure if she’ll run for Montana’s Senate, where she could serve another four terms.
“I always try to look at every session like it’s my last. Otherwise, it starts coloring decisions that you make, and I would rather not go there.”
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at email@example.com.