By Ron VandenBoom
Antoinette (Toni) Hagener, three term Democratic state representative from Havre, went toe to toe with her Republican challenger, Merlin Wolery, on taxes, education, economic development and drugs during a Tuesday evening candidate forum at the Holiday Village Shopping Center.
The forum was sponsored by the Havre Daily News and the Business and Professional Women's Club of Havre. Questions were offered by the audience and from a prepared list of questions from the Daily News.
The candidates differed on most issues but found common ground on a few.
When asked how they felt about the game farm Initiative 143, both candidates found room for agreement.
"I oppose the initiative," Wolery told the crowd. "I don't think we should be telling people they can't have a private business."
Wolery said he did not think the Chronic Wasting Disease issue was a real threat, but identified it as "something we want to keep our eyes on."
Hagener said she thought the ballot measure was "very unfair" and added that "we are getting some very broad interpretations of what's going on."
She questioned why elk have been singled out and not other animals such as buffalo.
Both candidates also agreed that granting tax incentives to specific businesses as an inducement to locate in Montana could be a good idea, but Hagener said it may also be a good idea to see see what you are going to get back. She noted businesses that enter a community need sewer, water, lights, roads, and other government services that are paid for with taxpayer money.
Wolery said tax incentives can create jobs, and told the crowd that no benefit was being gained without the business and it could be a benefit if it were considered.
A question on school funding brought some disagreement between the candidates, but both agree education should be a priority.
Hagener said she believed funding should be a priority, "the first thing on the list."
Wolery said that while he believes education is important and funded early in the legislative session, he is not sure whether it matters if funding comes from the state or the local level.
The issue of a local option sales tax was something Wolery said he was generally opposed to, claiming that it "is just one more avenue to take money out of the citizen's pockets."
Hagener, on the other hand, strongly defended a local option tax alternative.
"For the simple reason that I believe in local control," she said. "This is not something imposed on the people. This is something proposed and that the people vote on."
She said she objects to the high-handedness of state government telling local government they can't do things.
"I'm not saying they should do it, I'm not saying they have to do it, I'm saying they should have a right to do it," she said.
Tax cuts that Hagener characterized as tax shifts also brought sharp disagreement between the two candidates.
"When you cut on one level you tend to shift it right back down to those same people who are on fixed incomes who have no way to keep up with it," Hagener said. "I have a real problem with that."
Wolery, who singles out the Business Equipment Reduction and Elimination tax cut bill as an example of what Hagener was referring to, told the crowd the Montana Chamber of Commerce called it the most significant piece of economic development legislation in years. He also presented figures from local tax roles that indicate tax transfers have not yet affected local property taxes when compared to last year.
"Isn't it better to have local government in charge of area taxation instead of the bureaucracy in Helena," he asked while adding that they also take additional taxes to finance the administration of taxes they collect.
Hagener said she agrees local control might be good, but asked that people not forget that state government also needs to be funded.
"Some of the money must go for equalizing things like schools," she said. "They are local but require some equalization payments."