By Tim Leeds
Neighbors are vying for the seat in House District 89 this year.
Gary Gollehon, who has a mailing address in Brady, is the Democratic challenger to incumbent Republican John Witt, whose address is in Carter. The two farm near each other in the area between the two towns. The district covers parts of Liberty, Chouteau and Hill counties.
Witt, a two-term representative, said identifying the top issue for the 2003 Legislature is easy.
"Everybody's going to answer the first one correct: the budget," he said. "The $250 million to $300 million shortfall. I think that's number one on the agenda."
Witt said the Legislature has several options for balancing the budget. He thinks the best option is to do what many Montanans have had to do to their own budgets over the last few years of drought and a slumping economy.
"I myself think we have to make every effort to cut where we can, make those hard cuts," he said.
Gollehon said he thinks the solutions to Montana's budget woes could come from revitalizing the basic industries in the state agriculture, timber and mining. It's the decline of middle-income America that's prompted him to run, he added.
If those industries were producing more in the state, it would have more revenue to base its budget on, he said.
"Helena is a tax-driven entity. Without taxes they're where they're at," he said.
Without help for middle-income America, like small farmers and ranchers, Gollehon said, he doubts his grandchildren will be able to take over their father's farm, which was homesteaded by Gollehon's great-grandfather.
"I don't think it's going to happen if it keeps going the way it's going," he said. "I think middle-class America will be as extinct as the dinosaurs if we don't turn it around."
Gollehon and his wife, Becky, live close to his son, who farms his great-grandfather's place. Gollehon bought the farm he is on from a neighbor.
He graduated from Brady High School in 1963, then attended Montana State College, now Montana State University, in Bozeman for a few years.
His wife was born in Minnesota and grew up in Conrad, Gollehon said.
"She was a city gal before we got married," he said. "To move 30 miles out to the country is quite a transition."
Gollehon, a paid member of the National Rifle Association and a member of the Montana Grain Growers Association and the Farmers Union, served on the board of the school in his community.
Gollehon also has been a weather observer for more than 20 years, a member of the local committee of the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service, now the Farm Service Agency, and served as vice chair of the Tiber County Water District board. He worked with the Campaign to Reclaim Rural America, served on the Chouteau County Planning Board and served on the Golden West Lutheran Church Council and Endowment Board.
Witt's ties to the area also go back decades. His parents in 1947 moved from farming in the Conrad area to where Witt farms with his wife, Joanne.
After graduating from Augusta High School, Witt worked for Caterpillar for three years, then worked in construction for several years before coming back to the farm.
A two-term state representative, Witt also served as a Chouteau County commissioner for 12 years. In the House, he has served on many committees, including chairing the joint committee on education in 2001 and chairing the joint subcommittee on natural resources in 1999.
While a county commissioner, Witt served as president of the Montana Association of Counties in 1991, and chaired and served on committees for the National Association of Counties as well.
On the local level, he has served as chair of the local Farm Service Agency committee, served on and chaired the Chouteau County Fair Board, served on the county weed board, helped organize and served on the Tiber Water District board, and was on the committee organized to support building the private prison in Shelby.
Witt likes to hunt and fish, ride his motorcycle and go boating but his family tops his list of favorites. He has three children and six grandchildren.
Gov. Judy Martz has proposed a cut in the state's income tax, offset by a limited sales tax targeting tourists. Witt said he is not very interested in that. If a sales tax is implemented to offset other taxes, property taxes are what should be reduced, he said.
Raising taxes in a time of economic struggle probably isn't the answer to solving the state's budget woes, he added.
"I'm really opposed to raising any taxes at this time until there's a rebound in the economy," he said.
While he was a Chouteau County commissioner, the highest he ever saw in delinquent property taxes was $15,000, he said. The level is now $700,000, and Liberty County is in about the same situation, he said.
"The agriculture community is definitely in trouble," he said.
Gollehon said agriculture and other renewable resource industries are in trouble, but had a different solution than Witt.
The government needs to stop cutting state taxes, he said, because that causes local taxes to go up.
"Tax cuts are for big business, not for myself or anyone else. My taxes have gone up locally, and I can thank Helena for that," Gollehon said. "It's the mentality to cut taxes in Helena that benefits the wealthy or the big companies, and the little guy gets jabbed again."
He proposes reversing the trend of giving tax breaks to big business to help balance the state budget.
Several things are causing problems for ag producers, he said. The judiciary system needs to better enforce antitrust laws that give big businesses advantages over small producers, Gollehon said. One example is vertical stacking, where one company owns the product from the beginning through processing. A company doesn't care if pigs are selling for 9 cents a pound when they can raise, process and sell them as $4 pork chops, Gollehon said.
The Conservation Reserve Program and major U.S. trade agreements would supposed to benefit farmers but haven't, he added.
"As far as I can see, they've been good for big business but not for farmers," he said.
Witt said the budget can be balanced, though it will be a difficult process. Signs that the economy is starting to recover indicate the revenue shortfall may decrease in the future, he said.
To eliminate the deficit, the Legislature will have to use a careful balance, Witt said. If education, corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services are funded at the level their supporters want, the Legislature would have to cut so many other areas the state probably couldn't function, he said.
There are areas that can be cut, Witt said. There are agencies receiving funding that aren't functioning well, and some areas, like travel, need to be re-examined, he said. Other programs, like Travel Montana, the Historical Society, and programs in arts and entertainment, could be streamlined, he said.
With its population, Montana doesn't need more government, but less, he said.
"I think we can reduce the size of it and the cost," Witt said.
He supports tapping part of the interest from the coal trust fund for education. The future of Montana and its young people is education, and using the trust fund would be appropriate, he said.
"It's a rainy-day fund," Witt said. "I think it is a rainy day for the state of Montana and the people of Montana and it's time to use it."