In their first eastern Montana debate Tuesday, gubernatorial candidates Rick Hill and Steve Bullock fielded questions on natural resource development while hammering home their favorite campaign themes.
Hill, a former congressman and the Republican candidate, said improving the business climate is the key in getting more and better paying jobs. He told the audience at Montana State University Billings that he would put to voters a proposal to cap money going into the coal trust and use it instead to pay for infrastructure development in areas affected by the oil and gas boom.
He also repeated his plan to use oil and gas revenue to pay for public education and lower property taxes.
"As oil and gas production grows, that should give us the opportunity to reduce taxes further," he said.
Bullock said his plan for a one-time $400 rebate to homeowners would do more for the average Montana homeowner than Hill's proposal. He criticized Hill's proposals as squandering the state's surplus without using it for any meaningful investment.
The Democratic attorney general repeated one of his main campaign themes: that he would continue the growth that Gov. Brian Schweitzer has accomplished during his two terms.
"Good things have been occurring and we'll build on them and make them better," he said.
Bullock also suggested that he might use some of the state's surplus or adjust the amount of oil and gas revenue going to local communities to create an impact fund to help with infrastructure issues in eastern Montana communities.
Compared to the previous night's fiery debate on the same stage between Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Bullock-Hill meeting was a civil, almost wonk-ish affair. The topics examined obscure issues from the tax holiday on wells —both are for continuing it — to tax appraisal regulations for farmers and ranchers.
They also touched on ballot issues such as the question of whether repealing the 2011 Legislature's medical marijuana law that restricts who qualifies for the drug and bans any compensation for growing and distributing it. Both admitted they were confused by the ballot language but Hill said he would vote for the more restrictive legislative changes while Bullock said he favored returning to the law approved by voters in 2004.
Schweitzer can't run again because of term limits.
The next debate is scheduled for Wednesday in Missoula. The Libertarian candidate, Ron Vandevender, has not been invited to participate in any of the debates.