By Tim Leeds
Hi-Line legislative candidates agreed in general on most issues during a forum Thursday night the deficit is the major problem for the next legislative session and they all support higher education.
Most also said they don't support Initiative 145, which could result in the state buying privately owned hydroelectric dams.
"I have yet to see anything the government runs well," said Democrat Gary Gollehon of Brady, running for the seat in House District 89. "There's enough work at Helena to get the deficit down without adding fuel to the fire."
His opponent agreed.
"I oppose it for several reasons," said Republican John Witt of Carter, who is running for re-election in the district. "The state's a great spender, but it's not very good at making money."
Candidates for Hill County positions and local legislative districts were given three minutes to introduce themselves and their issues to the audience of about 50 people at the forum, sponsored by the Havre Daily News. After the introductions, the legislative candidates were each given two minutes to answer questions submitted by Havre Daily News readers.
I-145 proposes creating a five-member commission to study the idea of the state buying dams from the power industry. If the commission finds it to be in Montana's interests, but the industry refuses to sell, the state could condemn the dams and buy them at fair market value, estimated to cost between $500 million and more than a $1 billion.
Democrat Bob Bergren of Havre, running against Rep. Merlin Wolery of Rudyard in HD 90, said the issue is on the ballot for one reason: The voters are frustrated with the results of the deregulation of the power industry.
Wolery said he opposes the initiative.
"I'm voting no," he said. "I think it's a bad idea."
Democrat Rep. John Musgrove of Havre, running for re-election against Republican Ron VandenBoom of Havre, echoed Bergren. Stories like those about Enron, Imclone and WorldCom show that when industries are deregulated by government, "people not as honest as you or I take over."
"I for one don't want those foxes in the chicken coop anymore," Musgrove added.
VandenBoom said he opposes I-145. Seizing companies' property sends the wrong message to businesses considering moving to the state, he said.
There is no guarantee that buying the dams would create cheaper power, he added.
VandenBoom, Witt and Republican Andrew Brekke, candidate for HD 92, all said the state government already owns a hydroelectric dam, and it consistently produces the most expensive electricity in the state.
"The initiative process is a sound process, but I have to disagree with this one," Brekke said.
Democrat Jonathan Windy Boy of Rocky Boy, Brekke's opponent in HD 92, said he supports it. PPL Montana, which bought most of Montana Power Co.'s generation facilities after the industry was deregulated, is a subsidiary of an out-of-state company, Pennsylvania Power and Light. Any profits from the dams is going out of Montana, Windy Boy said.
Republican Ted Solomon of Havre and Democrat Ken "Kim" Hanson of Harlem, who are running in Senate District 46, disagree on the issue.
Hanson said he doesn't really oppose I-145, but he wants to proceed cautiously. The initiative doesn't say the state must buy the dams, he noted, but simply investigate whether it would be in the state's best interests.
Buying the dams would probably provide cheaper power, and also give the state more control over water rights at the dams, he said.
Solomon said buying the dams is the wrong approach, especially at a time of budget shortfalls.
"The state of Montana's proven it can't run efficient programs," he said.
Republican Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, running against Democratic incumbent Jon Tester in Senate District 46, made a short statement voicing his opposition to the initiative.
"Any time the government owns something and you subsidize it, they call that socialism," he said.
Tester said he will vote against the initiative, but added that it does have some advantages. Montana Power showed it didn't have the best interests of the state or its citizens in mind during its transformation to Touch America, he said.
"What Montana Power did, it capitalized their profits and socialized their losses," he said.
All candidates agreed that the biggest issue facing the next Legislature will be making up the state's budget shortfall, projected to be from $200 million to more than $300 million. They differed on how to solve the problem.
Solomon said restructuring the government and making it more efficient is the answer. Raising taxes would jeopardize the progress of the economy, he said.
Hanson said the Legislature should start with the governor's office and do away with programs that aren't getting the job done. The government needs to stop giving industry tax breaks that have to be picked up by local taxpayers, he added.
"I'm not anti-business but I am anti having people take advantage of us," he said.
Witt said the budget can be cut.
"There's a lot of fat out there, folks. There's a lot of cuts we can make," he said.
Witt and VandenBoom agreed that the coal tax trust fund should be used to make up the deficit in education spending. Witt said the trust shouldn't be gutted, but it could be used to supplement funding.
Every program needs to be looked at impartially during the next session to see what can be cut, said VandenBoom, a former newspaper reporter. The only thing that will help in the long term is bringing industry and jobs to the state, he added.
Gollehon said tapping the trust would be a bad idea. Alberta used to have a trust of more than $1 billion, he said. The province started tapping it about 15 years ago, and now it's gone, he said.
The key is finding a way to get Montana out of its economic trouble, he said.
The legislature will have to look at every program to see if it can be cut, Bergren said. The solution then, he said, will be to find a reliable funding source for the future.
Tester said the state has programs with duplicate functions that could be reduced. For instance, the governor's Office of Economic Development was created when the state already had programs in place for economic development. The state shouldn't stop economic development, but needs to focus its efforts, Tester said.
Balancing the budget will probably involve some tax increases, too, he added.
Hollandsworth said the budget can be balanced by cutting programs across the board. He said he doesn't think raising taxes is an answer.
"Any time you feed the animal, he's going to eat all you give him," Hollandsworth said.
Wolery said there is room to cut state government.
"Who, 10 years ago, thought what the state needed was 25 percent more employees?" he asked. "Don't let a politician out of the room if he says it's going to be better until he says where the money is coming from."
Musgrove, a retired English teacher, said he opposes reducing state income taxes until the budget is balanced. There's a perception that the state income tax is too high, he said, but the deductibility of federal taxes reduces its burden. Any new tax, like Gov. Judy Martz's proposed sales tax targeting tourists, should be applied to the deficit, he said.
Brekke, a 21-year-old college student, said some hard decisions will have to be made during the session.
"Leadership is not always popular. It's not always fun," he said. "There can't be any sacred cows."
Windy Boy, a member of the Chippewa Cree tribal council, said state government needs to be re-evaluated and downsized. Montanans have consistently voted down new state taxes, so that shouldn't be the answer, whether it's Martz's sales tax or something else, he said.
"A tax is a tax no matter how you put it," Windy Boy said.
All of the candidates agreed that higher education is of great importance to the future of Montana. None of them said how or if they would increase or maintain the level of state funding for it.
Wolery said the only way to increase education funding would be to increase property taxes or income taxes, or implement a sales tax. Voters have shown no support for those options, he said.
VandenBoom and Solomon agreed that the universities need to partner more with business to receive support from them.
Northern has partnerships with businesses like General Electric, VandenBoom noted. GE tells the university what skills it wants a group of graduates to have, and Northern tailors its programs to produce that product, he said. GE responds by providing money for the programs.