By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A Hill County farmer and businessman is trying to upset a Havre firefighter's bid for re-election in House District 33.
"I am more qualified than my opponent," Republican Kenneth Wilson said about Rep. Bob Bergren, citing his education, investment in the community and work experience.
Bergren said his work in the Legislature and in the community make him the better candidate.
"I have a proven track record," he said.
The two face off in a district almost unchanged in the legislative redistricting done following the 2000 census. It includes part of Havre and most of western Hill County.
Wilson farms on land south of Havre and Gildford, some of which was first farmed by his grandfather, Karl Bekker, who moved to the area in the late 1800s. Wilson worked for banks in Montana and North Dakota, and has degrees in finance and business administration from Montana State University in Bozeman and in social sciences from Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern. He also owns Havre Taxi and has built housing in North Dakota and Montana and is a landlord.
"I've received all of my advancement through attainment, not in the number of years I've worked," he said. "I think my main strengths are in administration."
Bergren began working in the Buttrey's grocery store produce department while still in high school. Five years later, he joined the Havre Fire Department and has worked there 19 years.
He and his wife, Julie Bergren, own and operate Julie's Hallmark in the Holiday Village Shopping Center - "I do the books and whatnot," he said - and owned a music store in Holiday Village for 4 years.
Bergren has been an officer with the Montana State Fireman's Association for 10 years and has been on the state AFL-CIO executive board for three years. He lobbied the Legislature for the unions before being elected to the House in 2002.
Bergren said he thinks Wilson represents the type of state government that people have tired of.
"He is only advocating more of the same thing, moving in the same direction we have moved in the last 10 years," Bergren said. "I think people don't want that. I will be there to change the direction our government is going in."
Wilson said the state budget will be the top priority for the next legislative session.
"Education and health care issues are going to be scrutinized very carefully by all candidates," he said.
Wilson initially said his top priority for using a projected $200 million budget surplus would be paying off state debt resulting from the $240 million deficit the 2003 Legislature faced. When a reporter noted that the state had a balanced budget last session and that the constitution requires a balanced budget, he said balancing the budget would be the top priority.
He said a surplus could be used to address health care and education.
Bergren said if there is a surplus when the Legislature convenes, he wants to look at increasing funding in several areas, including education, mental health, Meals on Wheels and child-care assistance.
He said he supports programs like child-care assistance for people who are starting jobs and getting off of welfare.
"I like to be able to help people who are helping themselves," he said.
Bergren added that the state has to be conservative in using any surplus because it is required to have a budget reserve and needs a reserve in case of high expenses fighting fires.
He said he thinks the state needs to do more to develop the harvesting of natural resources, and voted in the 2003 session to streamline some laws governing coal mines and electrical generators in the state.
Other natural resources also need to be harvested, but responsibly, he said.
"Mining and logging are always great sources of jobs. I just think there are proper ways now to do that," he said.
He declined to voice an opinion about Initiative 147, saying that as a legislator he should not comment.
Wilson said improving management of government regulations on natural resources will increase job creation. Oil and gas producers have told him that if there were a few more people working for the state Department of Environmental Quality, 50 percent more wells could have been drilled in the last year.
Harvesting natural resources is a key to new jobs, he added.
"Mining is going to have to be one of our sources. Lumber has to be one of our sources," he said.
Wilson said mining companies can be responsible. He said that while he worked for First Security Bank in Malta, he used to tour the Zortman-Landusky cyanide heap-leach mines. The mines were meeting state requirements for water and environmental quality, he said.
"They were badgered by a Native American group," Wilson said.
The tribal council of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which borders the mines, has filed a lawsuit saying the state cleanup plan is inadequate.
The $30 million bond posted by Pegasus Mining, which operated the mine, will not be enough for long-term water treatment, the Department of Environmental Quality said.
Pegasus went bankrupt in 1998 while lawsuits saying the mines were destroying the environment were pending.
Wilson said any problems in the cleanup is the fault of the state.
"The blame should be placed on the state for not taking trips to see how large the mine was getting so it could see more bonding was needed," he said.
Wilson said there are several other issues he would like to address, including rates farmers receive for the grain they sell.
Farmers are taking losses in prices being docked for quality, both in protein content and in the amount of chaff and other material in the grain, he said.
"We need to narrow those guidelines somewhat to help producers," he said.
Wilson said people he has talked to aren't as concerned about the funding levels for schools as they are about making sure basic skills are taught.
Students are learning how to use computers but are missing some practical items in communications and work-oriented areas, he said.
He said he would like to see more tort reform to prevent frivolous lawsuits in health care.
Bergren said one of his focuses will be on developing ethanol and biodiesel plants. He supported a bill that would have required fuel sold in the state to contain Montana-made organic fuel, but it failed to pass out of committee and he narrowly failed to get the vote needed on the floor of the House to bring it out of committee.
He supports increasing state funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which would increase the money from the federal government coming into the state. The federal government makes a 3-to-1 match for CHIP funding.
He also wants to increase state action to make health insurance more accessible. Bergren sponsored a bill last session that reduced the number of employees businesses need to group together to act as a pool.
Bergren said he wants to support Montana State University-Northern, which he calls "one of the key economic drivers on the Hi-Line."
He said he also wants to find ways to keep tuition at Montana universities from rising and make it more affordable.