By Tim Leeds
The opponents in the race for Senate District 46 are both agriculture producers one from Hill County, one from Blaine County.
Republican Ted Solomon, who farms and ranches south of Havre, faces Democrat Ken "Kim" Hansen, who farms and ranches near Harlem. The district covers all of Blaine and parts of Hill, Chouteau and Phillips counties.
Incumbent Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, who can't run for re-election because of term limits, is challenging Public Service Commission Chairman Greg Feland for his seat on the PSC.
"My dad homesteaded in the foothills of the Bear Paws fairly close to where I'm ranching now," Solomon said. "I've always been in agriculture ever since I leased it from my dad when I was in my early 20s."
Hansen tells much the same story. His grandfather homesteaded where he now works.
"So I've been here a long time," Hansen said.
Both candidates said the state budget deficit, projected to be from $250 million to $350 million, will be the main issue facing the 2003 Legislature.
"Actually, the $250 million shortfall is going to be a big issue, but that's going to affect a lot of things," Hansen said.
Solomon agreed that balancing the budget is key, but focusing on improving the economy is as important.
"I have a positive attitude about that. If we work hard, we can balance the budget and improve the economy," he said.
Neither candidate has held a state-level public office before.
Solomon has been an unsuccessful candidate, running against Jergeson for the same seat he's running for now in 1996. He lost the primary to Feland when he ran for the PSC in 1996.
Solomon has chaired the Hill County Republican Central Committee.
He attended Havre Public Schools until his appendix ruptured while he was in 10th grade. He then received home schooling while he helped his father on the ranch.
His wife of 23 years, Gail, is running as a Republican for Hill County auditor against the deputy auditor, Democrat Kathy Olson.
Solomon has extensive experience owning small businesses. Along with farming and ranching for 50 years, he has 30 years' experience in gas production, 14 years as a commercial pilot, 10 years as a fish broker and bush pilot in Alaska, and 16 years in wildland fire suppression.
His favorite activities tend to be outdoor and athletic. A former rodeo athlete and Golden Gloves boxer, Solomon said he enjoys flying, fishing, hunting and skiing.
Hansen, a Harlem High School graduate, attended Montana State University and Northern Montana College, and the Western College of Auctioneering, "So I can talk fast," he joked.
He is a member of the Milk River Cooperative board, and served on the Sweet Medical Health Center board and the Harlem school board. He was a member of Gov. Ted Schwinden's economic development board in the 1980s.
The top issue for Hansen while balancing the budget is education, he said.
"Education is kind of the hub. The spokes that go out from the hub, they all kind of intertwine, economic development, taxation, (the Department of Public) Health and Human Services. I look on education as the center of the wheel," Hansen said.
The state has to "step up to the plate" to fund education, but not by raising property taxes, Hansen said.
"I don't want to raise taxes at all if I can help it," he said.
If taxes had to be raised, he would increase taxes on tobacco, alcohol or gaming machines, Hansen said.
"I look on them as vices that people choose to do, but that would be a last resort," he said.
Hansen's idea in increasing revenue is to shift taxes back from the local level to the state level, he said.
Reversing the state's reduction of business equipment taxes is an option, although not one that he favors, Hansen said. He is not antibusiness, but wants taxes to be fair, he added.
"I just don't want to see them coming in and taking advantage of tax cuts and local taxpayers picking up the difference," he said.
Solomon said new taxes are not the way to solve the deficit.
"We do not need to increase taxes. That would hurt the economy," he said. "You cannot tax an industry without hurting the economy without hurting the industry that's involved."
Montana already has enough taxes, on the state and local level and through licensing, he added.
"Every time we do something, we're taxed on it," he said.
Previous tax increases on coal, oil and gas production have crippled production, Solomon said. Reductions in the taxes have improved production, but it is still very low, he said.
Montana, which has a 15 percent tax on coal production, produces 5 million tons of coal a year, Solomon said. Wyoming, which has a 7 percent tax, produces 37 million tons, he said.
"We need to be competitive if we're not just going to sit on our resources," he said. "We also haven't scratched the surface on oil and gas."
The state can also capitalize on its resources of timber and mining, Solomon said. With modern technology, environmental problems can be reduced, and reduce the dangers of wildfires at the same time, he said.
The state should be able to bring its economy around, he said.
"I just know the state has a tremendous amount of resources," Solomon said. "We just have to make it favorable for industry to bring in their products."
The way to balance the budget is by restructuring the state's programs, he said. With modern technology, departments and program staff can be streamlined, Solomon said, "get better results, get more bang for the dollar."
There are some services, like education and welfare services, that should not be cut, Solomon said.
"We have enough other places that we could reduce the budget that are not essential," he said.
The interest from the coal trust fund could be used to supplement education funding, Solomon said.
"We also need to restructure some of the school programs where there can be more money going into the schoolroom itself," he said.
The state should try to balance the budget by restructuring before cutting any programs in education or areas like Health and Human Services, he said.
If proceeds from a tourist tax were used to promote tourism, he would support it, Solomon said. If Montanans could be exempt, by showing proof of residence or by some other system, it would be reasonable, he said.