By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A 20-year school board member from Loma is trying to unseat a three-term incumbent from Carter in the race in House District 28.
Democrat Garvey Wood, 54, an archeologist and business owner, said it's not so much experience that makes him different from incumbent Rep. John Witt as what their experience has taught them.
"I don't know that it's a matter of qualifications. I think my opponent and I think of different ways of solving problems," he said.
Republican Witt said his experience in local organizations and county and state government gives him an edge over his opponent.
Witt worked for Caterpillar and then in construction before coming back to the family farm near Carter.
Witt, 62, served on several local boards and committees and was a Chouteau County commissioner before being elected to the Legislature in what was then House District 89 in 1998. He most recently served on the Appropriations and Rules committees.
Wood put his farm near Virgelle into the Conservation Reserve Program in 1987 and focused on his archeological consulting business. He also owns the Rose River Inn near Loma, and purchased the Kwik Stop convenience store in Loma this spring, re-opening it as the Midway Mercantile this summer. He has been involved in several local boards and volunteer organizations.
HD 28, created by redistricting following the 2000 census, includes Liberty County, the northwestern half of Chouteau County and the northeastern part of Toole County.
Wood wants to change the state tax system.
"I don't think we need to be giving more tax breaks to the largest corporations in Montana," he said. "We need tax equity. Everyone should pay their fair share of taxes, property and income taxes."
He added that Montana should close loopholes that allow major corporate chains like Wal-Mart and Kmart, "big-box stores," to pay little or no taxes in the state.
Witt said he thinks the Legislature has been working to stimulate the economy and increase tax revenue.
After the 2003 Legislature cut spending and passed a $28 million increase in cigarette taxes to erase a $230 million deficit, people predicted the 2005 session would face another deficit, as high as $200 million. Witt said he thought there might be a deficit, but no more than $140 million or $150 million.
"As it is, we're going to be about $200 million in the black," he said. "I'm pretty proud of that."
He said he believes the biggest issue the Legislature will face is school funding.
The state Supreme Court is considering an appeal of a court decision that ruled the system used to fund K-12 education doesn't meet the state's constitutional obligation to provide a quality education.
Witt said consolidation of schools or school administrations might help.
"We have a lot of examples where that's working," he added.
He said property taxes shouldn't be increased to fund schools when the state has another source: the money going into the coal tax trust fund.
"I believe it's time to cap that at $700 million and use some of those monies for education and infrastructure," he said.
Interest from the coal tax trust fund is used for a variety of projects, including helping communities impacted by coal bed methane development, making grants to communities for infrastructure projects, providing money for regional water systems, and putting money into the state general fund.
A supermajority of the Legislature, 75 percent of both the House and Senate, must approve changing the trust fund. That effort has failed in recent sessions.
Witt thinks it could pass next session.
"I think we've been close enough to where if it was locked down for education and infrastructure, the needs of the people of the state, I think we could have a shot at doing that," he said.
Wood said he is not very familiar with how the coal tax trust works, but he does not want to jeapordize the programs already being funded by the trust.
"There is concern that if it is capped, it will hurt those loans," he said.
He said the Legislature's decision on school funding should depend on the Supreme Court's ruling on the lawsuit, but that the state should "do whatever we can to get money to those kids so they can be competive in Montana and globally."
In the 1990s, he said, the Legislature gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to large companies in tax credits, tax deductions and reduced taxes in the hope of creating more jobs. That hasn't happened, he added.
The state should require the companies to show they have created a significant number of jobs, or start paying more taxes, he added.
Wood advocated increasing responsible development of oil and gas wells, a field he has been involved in as an archeologist since 1974.
He said companies he has worked with, like Devon Energy and its predecessors and Klabzuba Oil & Gas, explore and drill responsibly.
"They live here and work here and don't want to mess up the environment," Wood said.
He said he supports developing natural resource harvesting, especially for creating value-added products, but doesn't support reversing the ban on cyanide heap-leach mining proposed in Initiative 147.
"If a mine goes in, there will be jobs for 20 years but there will be cleanup jobs for years after that. I don't want our water degraded either," he said. "My feeling is there are probably other methods that gold mining companies could use."
He advocates turning ag products into fuels and wind into wind energy, as well as other value-added products.
"We need to be helping those companies get those products out into the rest of the country and the rest of the world," he said.
Witt said a major concern of his is the actions of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., including possibly closing lines to communities like Big Sandy and charging high freight rates.
"We're held captive by BNSF in this part of Montana, in fact in all of Montana," he said. "When you think of a farmer giving up every third crop in freight, it's excessive."
Witt said he thinks Montana should look into re-creating a state railroad commission to examine railroad issues and set state policies. He also supports the Railroad Competition Act being considered in Congress, which would set federal regulations governing railroad companies in areas of little or no competition.
He said he thinks higher education could be better administered if the Legislature has a better idea of how money is being used. He proposes regular audits and review of the universities' budgets to give the Legislature that information.
He said he also thinks there are areas in state government that could probably be trimmed to free up money, especially in areas like travel budgets.
"When you talk one-on-one with department people, they say there are places that can be cut. I don't think the budget is really bare-bones like we were led to believe," he said.
Witt opposes term limits. He said he thinks the initiative extending term limits will pass, but that it is just a patch. The term limits are reducing the institutional knowledge of the Legislature, and that is creating problems, he said.
"I think there is more gridlock than before," he said.
Witt said if he is re-elected and term limits are extended, he doesn't plan to run for a fifth term as a representative. He said he would probably run for the Senate instead.
Witt works the land his parents bought in the Carter area in 1946, farming and ranching with his wife, Joanne Witt. He is a graduate of Augusta High School.
Wood graduated from Fort Benton High School, buying his farm from his uncle a year later in 1969. He graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman with a bachelor's degree in archeology in 1974, forming Gar C. Wood and Associates with his wife, Vivian Wood, that same year.