By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Hi-Line legislative candidates had the opportunity to square off on the issues facing the community and the state at a candidate forum Thursday night.
The forum featured candidates vying for seats in House Districts 32, 33 and 34.
Candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves to an audience of nearly 100 people at the forum, sponsored by the Havre Daily News. After the candidates' opening statements, they were given two minutes to answer questions.
After redistricting combined two districts, Democratic incumbent Jonathan Windy Boy of Rocky Boy and Republican incumbent Jeff Pattison of Glasgow are going head to head for the seat in HD 32. When asked to descrdibe the biggest challenge facing the 2005 Legislature, both candidates agreed that the state's budget is a big concern.
"It seems like the biggest challenge every session is budget, what you're going to do with the budget, how you're going to balance it, who you're going to tax, and how you're going to come up with the funding for programs," Pattison said. "We're going to have to take a look at some funding formulas and come up with some different things."
Windy Boy agreed that the budget is one of the most pressing issues facing the Legislature, but he also said legislators need to take a good, hard look at Montana's health, education and water, urging the audience to vote no against Initiative 147, which would remove the 1998 ban on cyanide heap-leach gold mining.
"Without our health, education and clean water, what do we have?" he asked. "With the debacle of the Zortman-Landusky mines vote against it (I-147) because once the seepage gets into the aquifer we might as well just say goodbye to everything."
Windy Boy and Pattison also discussed the barriers between white and American Indian communities. Because HD 32 includes both the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations, both candidates agreed that it's important to encourage collaboration between white people and Native Americans.
"We're only 30 miles apart. We need to break down these barriers, especially if these barriers are within us It's up to us because, by golly, I'll tell you I'm not going anyplace and I don't think you're going anyplace," Windy Boy said.
Pattison said running in HD 32 has opened his eyes.
"I was forced into an area that I didn't ever really want to go to, but through that I feel really blessed and happy about the whole thing," he said. "I've met so many neat people, but unfortunately there seems like there's a barrier out there that we need to knock down. "
Pattison said he's talked to a number of companies that have looked into moving their businesses to reservation land, but have reconsidered.
"Quite frankly they're afraid of the tribal laws and court system," he said. "Everyone has to be treated equal We need to respect one another and I think that's been lost in some instances."
Windy Boy agreed.
"These barriers have been up for too long and we need to start coming together now. I'm color blind," he added.
Havre's John Musgrove, the Democratic incumbent in HD 34, and Republican Andrew Brekke exchanged views on the state's tax system, their positions on I-147 and other issues.
Brekke said if elected he plans to propose legislation that will further the state's tax reform, including finding an alternative property tax system for schools and individuals.
"I think (tax reform is) the first thing as legislators that we can do for you, to save money, put money back in your pocket, and help businesses invest in our community and to provide stable taxes that we can depend on," he said.
Brekke said the state needs to find a new funding system to replace the antiquated one that doesn't meet the state's needs.
"We can't have any sacred cows and we have to look at everything and I think we've reached a breaking point in Montana where we have to start looking at different sources of revenue," he added. "The revenue sources in this state are not adequate to meet our needs. I don't know if it's misspending or misappropriation or what it is."
Musgrove said he plans to work on legislation that will protect the Hi-Line's water.
"In the last few years our water rights and availability of clean water have been quite a problem, and at the same time that we need to get a handle on this, we have eroded the ability of the Water Resources Bureau and Natural Resources to the point where they can't do the work that is necessary to change that," he said.
Musgrove said that as an ex-officio member of the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, he wants the state to share accountability for the St. Mary Diversion.
"I plan to make sure that the state takes on its share of the burden of seeing that the Milk River watershed will be adequately supplied with St. Mary's water for perpetuity if we can," he added.
Musgrove said that, speaking as a citizen, he plans to vote against I-147.
"I'm not against mining. I'm against the cleanup of that mining and calling it economic development," he said.
Brekke said that if the state turns its back on the initiative, it "would be leaving jobs and economic development at the door."
Democratic incumbent Bob Bergren and Republican Kenneth Wilson, vying for the seat in HD 33, also went head to head on the issues Thursday.
State District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock in April ruled that Montana's current school funding formula is in violation of the Montana Constitution. The state is appealing the ruling, but Bergren said Sherlock's decision will give the Legislature a chance to re-evaluate its funding for schools.
"I think it gives a great opportunity. In fact, I don't have any problem with the way the lawsuit read. It actually directed the Legislature to revisit this and I think that it's about time that they did," Bergren said.
Bergren said he believes that a combination of increasing revenue for schools and streamlining the school districts across the state will help legislators come up with a funding formula for public schools that works.
Wilson agreed that the state needs to look at funding for schools but said legislators must be responsible and look at income sources and find extra funding sources, like taxes from new growth, to help the state foot the bill.
"We need to look at the budget that we have right now. we can't wander away from the budget, we can't just continue to spend," he said.
Wilson said consolidating schools - which he said can provide a more stable environment for students and teachers - should also be considered.
Bergren said the 4 for 2 project for U.S. Highway 2 is not a dead issue, despite the Montana Department of Transportation's decision to drop its support for the project last month.
"I think the Legislature needs to revisit this," he said. "Unfortunately with the sparseness of our region we don't have the political horsepower in Helena to throw that kind of weight around."
Bergren said he was upset that those running MDT "started dictating policy."
"As a legislator I take offense to that. The people of Hill County chose me to go down there and help set policy for the state of Montana, so when an appointed director starts to dictate the policies of our state, I have a problem with that," he added.
Wilson said U.S 2 is incredibly dangerous, especially between Havre and Harlem. He said it's important for the Hi-Line to continue working with the state to widen Highway 2.
"We have a very dangerous situation and I'm very glad that the state of Montana has recognized this and is looking at plans to widen that highway," he said. "Widening that highway is the first step towards economic growth, growth for Hill County and safety for our people."
Bergren said that although a sales tax generally hits the working middle-class especially hard, he could be persuaded to support such a tax if the conditions could benefit the people of Hill County, possibly offsetting huge increases in local property taxes on citizens and local businesses.
"If there was a way we could do it to take advantage of the tourism industry, possibly exempting or allowing huge deductions for people who file local or state income taxes, I might be persuaded to support something like that," he said.
Wilson said he would consider a sales tax as well, if issues with local control of property taxes could be ironed out. He said he would not vote for a sales tax if Havre lost control of how tax money is spent.
"We have local control of those dollars. We want to know how our children are being raised, we want to know how our local government is spending the money. We want to still have some local control," he said.
The candidate forum will be replayed on 88.1 KGVA-FM today at 1 p.m. and Sunday at noon.