By Tim Leeds
A Havre firefighter is challenging a Rudyard farmer in the election for House District 90.
Democrat Bob Bergren, an engineer and emergency medical technician with the Havre Fire Department, is running against one-term incumbent Republican Merlin Wolery of Rudyard. The district includes part of Havre and most of western Hill County.
Both candidates have roots deep in the area. Wolery's maternal and paternal grandparents homesteaded in the northwestern corner of Hill County, "and we've been there ever since," Wolery said.
After graduating from Rudyard High School, now Blue Sky School, Wolery earned two-year degrees in auto mechanics and business administration from Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern.
He then returned to his family's farm, which he still works with his wife, Pat.
Wolery defeated incumbent Antoinette "Toni" Hagener of Havre in the 2000 election. He served on the House committees on education, agriculture and judiciary in the 2001 Legislature.
Bergren's great-grandparents homesteaded north of Harlem, and his grandfather moved to Havre when he was working for the state highway department.
Bergren, a 17-year veteran of the Fire Department, worked for Buttrey's for five years. He helps his father at his farm and owns Julie's Hallmark store with his wife, Julie.
Bergren has been a member of the executive board of the State Firefighters Association, and is an executive board member of the state AFL-CIO. He also served on the Havre City Council.
Bergren said his work with the AFL-CIO will help him perform if elected. He has a good understanding of issues like plant closures and worker retraining, he said.
"I think it gives me a large perspective as far as learning what's going on around the state," he said.
The biggest problem facing the 2003 Legislature is the budget deficit, estimated at $250 million to $350 million, Bergren said.
The cause of the deficit is simple, he said. When someone is given $500 million in tax breaks, there should be a $500 million deficit. Montana's deficit was caused by tax reductions implemented over the last 10 years, he said, such as the reduction in the business equipment tax.
The tax reductions have had almost no impact on small businesses, Bergren said. Julie's Hallmark has received almost no reduction in its taxes, he said.
What the tax breaks really did was shift the tax burden to the local level, Bergren said. Local taxes have gone up 70 to 90 percent in 10 years, he said.
While people have voted in necessary increases in local taxes to make up for state reductions, voters will eventually begin turning them down, Bergren said.
Bergren proposes eliminating the deficit by moving the tax burden back to the state level.
"I just want to take the shift back," Bergren said. "I don't want to increase anything. I just want everyone to pay their fair share."
Wolery said eliminating the deficit will take a combination of cuts and new taxes. He said he would support increasing Montana's cigarette tax, which is relatively low compared to that of neighboring states.
He would also support increasing the bed tax, Wolery said.
The combination tourist-targeted sales tax and income tax reduction proposed by Gov. Judy Martz is not something he is in favor of.
"I think now is a pretty poor time to talk about a reduction in income tax," he said.
He also opposes allowing local-option sales taxes, Wolery said.
"I might have to back off on that one, but I'm not sure we should have a lot of authorities imposing a sales tax," he said.
While a local-option tax might work in some areas of Montana, mainly larger cities, he doubts it would work in smaller communities like Havre.
Programs and services will have to be cut to balance the budget, Bergren said, but he's not deciding what he thinks should or shouldn't be cut until he's heard testimony about them, he said.
"I'm not going to say this or this is a sacred cow," he added.
Legislators will have to look at every area of government, Bergren said. Some areas, like the Department of Health and Human Services, are high on his list to be protected, but, "I'm willing to listen.
Bergren said he is interested in reducing income taxes, but not with Martz's tourist tax. Most of the goods and services that would be taxed are used by Montanans, he said.
"Who will pay that? It's going to be me, it's going to be us," he said.
Wolery said he had concerns about cuts in programs made over the summer to balance the $57 million deficit, but they had to be made to balance the budget.
More cuts will have to be made, Wolery said, but he won't make any decisions about what should be cut before the session starts.
"Those needy people needing the services I would hope we could continue to serve," he said.
Some areas can be reduced on the state and local level, Wolery said. The Legislature should look at paring the number and size of agencies.
Education could also find ways to save money, Wolery said. He is an advocate of consolidating smaller school districts where possible, and said that maybe there should only be one school district with one superintendent per county.
"We have to be efficient where we can be efficient and not reduce educational opportunities," he said.
There may not be much more the state government can do to promote economic development, Wolery said. The focus should be on the backbone of Montana industry, he added agriculture and natural resources.
Wolery doesn't think Montana can become a state with a strong manufacturing industry anytime soon, he said. He also doesn't think tourism, which he said provides mostly lower-paying service jobs, can be the economic backbone.
While harvesting natural resources can be done improperly, it can also be done without permanently damaging the environment, Wolery said.
A main issue Wolery said he would focus on if re-elected is treatment of methamphetamine addicts.
"That's a bigger problem than most people realize," he said.
A program similar to the intensive-treatment program for people convicted of their fourth DUI that the 2001 Legislature passed is needed for meth addicts, Wolery said.
"I'm not proposing building more prisons. I think we should turn parts of prisons into high-quality treatment centers," he said "In the end it will be cheaper for society."
Bergren said his main concern if elected will be representing the people who elected him. He has adopted a motto he heard in a governor's campaign as the philosophy for his own campaign: "Those of us who have been elected to public office should not only consider themselves as leaders but also as servants of the people who chose them."