MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Roy Brown, continued to grapple over the pace of energy development, whether taxes are too high and if Montana can weather the economic downturn as they met in their first one-on-one debate. Meeting Tuesday in Brown's home city of Billings, the pair resumed their clash over Schweitzer's claim that energy development is on the rise. Brown, a former independent oil company owner, said oil production in Montana has fallen in recent months by 14 percent. But Schweitzer said that despite the drop, oil production is up 40 percent since he took office. He pointed to increased coal production as evidence his salesmanship of the state's natural resources is paying off. "It takes people to go out and find businesses that will invest in Montana. I've done that. You have not," Schweitzer said. They also argued over the economy, with Brown saying the crisis on Wall Street is about to hit Montana hard. He said massive budget increases under Schweitzer could leave the state in a fiscal bind. "We are faced with a very difficult situation," Brown said. "Unemployment is going through the roof right now and we have the largest unemployment in the state of Montana since July 2001." Schweitzer countered that he expects the state's next budget to include a $1 billion surplus. Schweitzer later challenged Brown's plan to cut the state budget to offset an elimination of the business equipment tax and property tax reductions. The governor asked Brown to specify what programs would be eliminated or receive less funding under his administration. Brown said he "would not cut programs that are for taxpayers," but did not identify specific areas for possible reductions. He rejected Schweitzer's contention that local governments would feel the pinch from tax reductions, saying the cuts would allow companies to invest more in their businesses. That money "goes right into the economy and grows and expands many times and ultimately increases revenues," Brown said. On other subjects, the two agreed that the right to carry concealed weapons should extend to the state's college campuses, and that the state worker's compensation fund should not be invested in the stock market. Regarding the livestock disease brucellosis, Schweitzer promoted his plan to enact a separate set of regulations for managing the disease around Yellowstone National Park. The area around the park is considered the last reservoir of the disease in the United States. Brown said that proposal would mean abandoning many ranchers. He said resources should instead be directed at eliminating the disease in bison. Left out of Tuesday's debate was Stan Jones, the Libertarian candidate for governor. Jones was not invited by the event's sponsors the Billings Gazette and Montana State University-Billings after participating in three prior debates. Jones advocates the elimination of gun laws, the privatization of schools and the replacement of paper currency with gold and silver coins. He said his absence Tuesday allowed the "status quo" to prevail. "Unless you have a governor willing to take extreme positions, this country's going to go down the tubes," he said after the event. The candidates have agreed to one more debate before the Nov. 4 election on Oct. 24 in Great Falls. Jones said he expects to participate.