By Ron VandenBoom
School safety and the spread of methamphetamine labs in Montana topped the list of subjects discussed by Jim Rice, Republican candidate for the office of attorney general, Friday when he addressed the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club.
Mike McGrath is the Democratic candidate for attorney general.
"We need to encourage the federal government to designate Montana as a high intensity trafficking area," Rice told the Pachyderms.
Rice said the number of methamphetamine labs "is becoming an epidemic throughout the state of Montana."
Rice gave statistics that indicated six "meth labs" were busted by authorities in 1996, with that figure rising to 24 in 1997. He noted that the next year saw the figure double again to 50 and predicted that before the end of this year the number will more than double again.
He also claimed that some manufactures have even taken their labs on the road manufacturing the drug as they drive Montana's highways.
The designation of Montana as a "high intensity trafficking area" will free federal funds to help with enforcement as well as the cleanup of these very toxic sites, Rice said.
Also high on Rice's political agenda is safety in public schools.
"I want to insure that we have a safe learning environment for our children," Rice told the crowd.
Rice used his daughter, a senior at Helena High School, as an example of how schools have changed since he was a student in Glasgow.
"I couldn't have told you what lock-down even meant," he said. "Now my daughter ... can tell you from firsthand experience."
Rice said every school needs a plan, not a top-down plan from Helena, he said, but a local plan to insure safety and better identify kids at risk.
As a three-term representative in the Montana Legislature, Rice said he served on a commission that worked on the problem of youth violence and mentoring programs.
Rice admitted to the Pachyderms that as attorney general there would be limits to his ability to impact the methamphetamine problem or the school violence.
He did, however, note that the Board of Crime Control is in the Department of Justice and he would also have the power to rally funding sources including federal funding sources to combat these issues.
He also noted that the office could be used as a bully pulpit in the Legislature to influence funding.
Rice explained that most of the attorney general's duties deal with the issuing of permits or licenses and the regulating of businesses, particularly those that have gaming machines. He noted that the attorney general will often be called upon to issue a legal opinion regarding a law or rule that will be binding.
"It's a wide net that the office of the attorney general casts," Rice said. "And it's very, very important."
Citing his familiarity with the private sector and his experience dealing with government red tape, Rice took a modest swipe at his Democratic opponent noting that McGrath is a government employee who has never had to deal with the difficulties encountered in the private sector.
"I have lived under the rules and regulations that the attorney general's office seeks to enforce," he told the crowd. "I think if we elect candidates who have, we will have a government that is more responsive ... because they've been through the process themselves."