By Ron VandenBoom
Carol Williams, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor with the Mark O'Keefe campaign, said she didn't see the sun for five weeks while the fires raged in western Montana.
Williams was still suffering from a slight case of congestion caused by what she said was the smoke from the fires when she recently passed through Havre on a campaign swing.
Williams said it was a terrible tragedy that struck Montana this summer and many homeowners suffered a great loss due to the fires.
That's part of the reason Williams found herself concerned when Gov. Marc Racicot released comments blaming federal environmental policy for the fires, she said.
"I was quite concerned when Gov. Racicot made the attack on the administration," she said. "To come in and try to politicize it (the fires) I thought was terribly inappropriate."
Williams said that Racicot did not condemn those fires that started on private property or on state lands which also suffered due to the fires. She said that the Bush administration did not receive that kind of criticism during the Yellowstone Park fires several years ago.
"And it's not how we get things done in Montana," she said.
Getting things done also applies to the economy, Williams said.
"I'm concerned about jobs and particularly good jobs in Montana," she said. "And I'm also concerned about education."
Williams said state government has dropped from about 71 percent funding of education to about 62 percent funding over the last decade.
"And because of that," she said, "property taxes have gone up for all communities in Montana."
Property taxes are the most common way communities have of making up the shortfall when state funding of schools declines.
"Because people aren't willing to let their schools go," she said, "they'll raise mill levies to pay the taxes necessary to get the good schools they want."
This, Williams said, is not what she believes Montanans really want from their state government. Williams said an O'Keefe administration will push to get funding for education back to the 70 percent level and give property owners the relief they deserve.
"Really that money should be coming from Helena," she said. "And relieving these home owners of the responsibility."
Williams said one of the things O'Keefe has emphasized during the campaign, has been the close association between education and the economy.
"You can't have a good economy if you don't have good schools," she said.
And as Williams travels the state campaigning, the one issue she hears more about than any other is the economy and the economy is the primary reason she decided to run, she said.
One issue the O'Keefe campaign has focused much of its attention on recently has been what they perceive as a gradual creep toward the centralization of state services.
"Some departments have gotten so big that they're not really serving the people they are supposed to serve," she said.
Two departments Williams singled out are the Department of Revenue and the Department of Human Services.
Williams defines part of the problem as an inability on the part of these departments to listen to the counties they are supposed to serve.
"These things can be dealt with better if you take what the communities want and take that information to Helena and try to fix them." She said. "Rather than using the top down approach.'"
It is feared that centralization of services could ultimately result in less contact and understanding of the counties and in less human contact at the county level as offices eventually close.
Williams said part of the problem also lies with the legislature that she said is prone to "pass these bills without asking anybody in the counties."
"I think Mark feels that way and I feel that way," Williams said.