By BOB ANEZ/AP Political Writer
HELENA - Although the next governor is likely to confront a deficit of at least $100 million, the men lining up for the job offer few details on how they will cope with the problem.
In response to questions posed by The Associated Press, most declined to list priorities for spending reductions if they become necessary, and all but one said no government programs should be safe from the budget ax.
The candidates also generally consider government fee increases as no different than raising taxes, but just one came close to an outright promise to oppose higher fees once in the governor's chair.
The six major gubernatorial contenders explained their positions in written answers to questions submitted by the AP. The candidates were given 10 days in which to reply. Only Republican Bob Brown failed to meet that deadline, returning his responses 19 hours late.
Most of the candidates took the safe approach, refusing say how they will tackle the problem of a money shortage that could be hundreds of millions of dollars.
For example, Republican Pat Davison said he will balance the budget without a tax increase, but wouldn't discuss priorities for spending cuts.
''Once elected, I will carefully examine the fiscal situation of the state and develop a state budget that prioritizes job creation and education.''
GOP challenger Bob Brown was equally ambiguous, saying, ''Priorities will be established to protect the people most needing state services and least able to pay for those services.''
The other two Republican candidates, Tom Keating of Billings and Ken Miller of Laurel, indicated across-the-board cuts would be their solution.
Miller said he will ask department directors to slash budgets by 10 percent without reducing services. Keating suggested a decrease of 2 percent to 3 percent.
Beyond that, Keating said unspecified government ''grant programs and data-gathering programs'' can be eliminated, and Miller suggested an early retirement program to trim personnel costs.
Democrat John Vincent of Bozeman said he would support any spending cuts ''that can be warranted on the basis of inefficiency or waste,'' but added that education, human services and corrections would be off limits.
''If you want a governor who will cut these vital functions of state government, I'm not your guy,'' he said.
Vincent noted those three categories consume 80 percent of the state budget and concluded the Legislature ''will not cut its way to a balanced budget.'' But he did not explain how he will balance the books without lowering spending and whether his solution will include tax increases.
Brian Schweitzer of Whitefish, the other Democratic candidate, offered no more specifics than Davison and Brown, promising only to encourage efficient government.
A question about the candidates' views on government taxes versus fees and what constitutes unacceptable fee increases noted that the 2003 Legislature raised fees by $59 million.
Miller came closest to opposing any fee increases, saying his commitment to efficient government would eliminate the need for higher fees.
Davison did not say what would be unacceptable fee increases to him, but said he is biased against fees and would evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.
Keating said fees and taxes are the same, but he has no objection to raising fees as long as the increase is requested by taxpayers to provide specific additional services. However, general fee or tax increases to pay for general government operations are unacceptable, he said.
Brown said he would like to abolish ''small nuisance'' fees, but did not elaborate.
Schweitzer said lawmakers should be honest about fee increases and call them by their real name: tax increases. A higher fee is acceptable only if it offers value to the person who pays it and only after increased government efficiency won't solve the money shortage, he said.
Vincent criticized fees as regressive because they are not based on ability to pay. He also said fee increases are wrongly used by those trying to avoid making the tough decision to raise taxes.