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Bullock, Hill exchange barbs over Supreme Court

HELENA (AP) — Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill exchanged barbs Tuesday in the first debate between the two candidates for governor over the cases Bullock chose to take to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The debate, the first of seven scheduled through the end of October, started slowly as the pair picked through common ground on issues such as pay raises for state employees and fixes to the pension system. Then things began to pick up steam as the candidates looked to stake out turf in areas from economic development to education funding to anti-union legislation.

Their sharpest exchange came near the end of the hour-long debate in a crowded Helena Middle School auditorium nearly filled to its 1,100-person capacity.

Hill, abandoning his podium to pace along the stage, questioned why Bullock as attorney general chose to defend a challenge of the state's century-old ban on corporate political spending before the nation's high court.

Most knew that case would be lost, Hill said, in the wake of the high court's 2010 Citizens United decision allowing corporate spending in federal elections.

"I think you're 0-3 before the Supreme Court now," Hill said.

The former congressman criticized the attorney general for deciding to defend that case but not to join other states in their lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama's health care reform law. The high court ruled on that lawsuit over the summer.

When the debate panelists tried to move on, Bullock cut short his answer to a question on medical marijuana to respond to Hill's charges. The attorney general said there is a big difference between defending a state law and joining a frivolous lawsuit.

The health care lawsuit was a partisan challenge, and simply adding more states to it wouldn't have swayed the judges one way or another, he said.

"It's not like American Idol," Bullock said.

Hill shot back that Bullock's answer was hypocritical because he had no problem joining other states in a lawsuit about the use of racial preferences in university admission standards.

The debate touched on issues important to the state workers who populate the capital city, such as pay raises and pensions, and the pair found several points in which they appeared to agree. Their differences started to emerge on how to jump-start the economy.

They argued over whether homeowners would benefit more from the one-time, $400 tax rebate that Bullock proposes or a permanent property tax cut that Hill said could amount to $200 million between 2013 and 2015.

Then they moved on to business, with Hill saying regulations should be eased to encourage more businesses to move to Montana. The state's legal climate, workers' compensation laws and unemployment system is holding back investment, he said.

"It's the private side of the economy that we've got to get spurred to create more jobs in Montana," Hill said.

Bullock said he believed those problems are overstated based on conversations he has had with business owners.

"There are a lot of good things happening in Montana. We don't need to create an adverse regulatory climate by saying things are a lot worse than they are," he said.

Hill said more money from natural resource development should be used to pay for public education instead of property taxes. The state's natural resource development revenues were set to grow dramatically with the oil, gas and coal projects in eastern Montana, and would provide a reliable source of income, he said.

Bullock responded that natural gas prices can be volatile, and investment in education shouldn't be tied to just natural resources.

The two were asked if they would support an anti-union right-to-work law, such as those that have been passed in several other states. Hill said workers shouldn't be compelled to join a union to have a job and said some businesses won't move to states without right-to-work laws.

"I think the congressman said he'd support right-to-work legislation. If it gets to my desk, I'd veto it," Bullock responded.


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