Democratic governor candidate talks issues, Gianforte
Last updated 11/3/2023 at 1:13pm
Democratic candidate for Montana governor Ryan Busse made a stop in Havre Thursday to speak with potential voters and sat down with the Havre Daily News for an interview on his candidacy and the reasons he is running.
Busse, a former gun company executive and nearly 30-year resident of Montana, said he had been considering a run for some time, but the past few years have made him feel that the state is in desperate enough need for course correction that he decided to go for it.
He said he moved here to raise his family, settling in the Kalispell area, and he's been happy ever since.
"I love this place, it's changed me for the better," he said. "I want to protect and improve the things that make Montana great."
He said he believes the Montana he knows and loves is under threat from an extremist political movement implemented by a Republican supermajority in the Montana Legislature and fueled by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a governor who, he said, has made a series of mystifying decisions that have hurt local government, the working class and the state as a whole for the sake of the rich.
"They want to sell this place off to billionaires," he said.
An obvious manifestation of that, he said, is the recent rise in property taxes, something that has rendered the much-touted state surplus rebate practically worthless.
This year, property evaluations across the state have seen people's taxable values increase drastically, and, Busse said, it's something that Montana Republicans and the governor could have prevented, or at least mitigated, but didn't.
He said they were told it was going to happen during the session and they had every opportunity to pass bills that would have addressed the problem, but they didn't, seemingly deliberately.
Busse said their apparently purposeful lack of action has hurt Montana's working class as Gianforte's administration has done everything they can to make sure tax breaks go to large corporations and the rich - the people who need them the least.
"Why are we padding corporate bottom lines while making things harder for working Montanans?" he said. "Frankly, it pisses me off."
He said this has rendered the tax rebate the Legislature decided to use the state's surplus for all but worthless, a rebate that was already unnecessarily difficult to get, as it required an onerous and overly complicated application process that caused thousands of people who would have otherwise qualified to not get what they were promised.
"They made it as difficult as possible on the people who are the most in need and deserving of those rebates," he said.
He said this lack of action has had knock-on effects that have spiraled into conflicts between the state and local government and put the latter in impossible situations as the former tries to pass the buck to them for the tax increases.
After the Montana Department of Revenue demanded that the counties collect 95 mills worth of property taxes for school equalization, most county commissions across the state have refused to honor this demand, arguing that the massive tax increase breaks state law that prevents taxes from rising to quickly.
Busse said he understands why an overwhelming majority of Montana county commissions, many of them controlled by Republicans, have voted to refuse the governor's demand.
He said county governments have been put in the impossible situation of having to either follow the state's directive and break the law, or fight the governor in court.
"It's craziness, this decision that's been forced upon them," he said. "... I feel bad for them."
Busse also said that efforts by the Gianforte administration to paint this tax increase as if it is the fault of local government are egregious on a moral level, and on top of that, is a bafflingly obvious lie.
In addition to that, he said, school teachers and administrators are now worried about how the fight will affect school funding stability, and he understands why they feel that way.
Busse said the needs of public schools are being ignored, as teacher pay remains incredibly low during a massive teacher shortage and the increasing threat of education being privatized.
He said a charter school bill passed by the Legislature and supported by Gianforte opens the door to public funds being diverted away from public schools, schools that are badly needed, especially in rural eastern Montana.
He said he graduated with a class of 16 students and he knows how vital these small rural schools are to their communities and the people who live there, and any effort to send public dollars to private schools of any kind is unacceptable.
"It's going to kill these small towns and further stress our public school system," he said.
He also said the push by many to use public funds to support religious schools is deeply concerning to him.
There are great private and religious schools in this state, and if people want to send their children there, that is completely their business, Busse said, "but not with public dollars. I'm adamant about that."
Another issue Busse talked about was Senate Bill 442 that set spending from marijuana taxes, a bill widely supported by Republicans and Democrats alike during the session that Gianforte vetoed for reasons Busse finds mystifying.
SB 442, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, passed the Legislature with 130 out of 150 lawmakers in support. However, because of the timing of the veto - just before the Senate adjourned sine die - it's not clear whether lawmakers will get a chance to try to override it.
The final version of the bill would have used 20% of marijuana revenues to help counties fund construction and repair of rural roads. It would also have increased the share of funding that goes toward wildlife habitat improvement projects and allowed some of that money to go toward other conservation work. Significantly more funding also would have gone toward a state account that provides assistance for veterans and their surviving spouses and dependents.
The bill drew support from a wide variety of stakeholders, including lawmakers from both parties, conservation groups, landowners and county governments including the Hill County Commission which expressed support for it. Its veto came as a shock to practically everyone, including members of Gianforte's own party, who widely condemned his actions
"You couldn't get 87 percent of our legislative members to vote in favor of ice cream," Busse said. " ... It was a political gift to him, but he effectively just gave the counties the middle finger."
Busse said Gianforte's veto seems to have been timed deliberately to prevent the Legislature from taking a poll to override it, which it almost certainly would have been, and he added that this kind of political maneuvering demonstrates a consistent problem with Gianforte and his administration, arrogance.
He said Gianforte seems to have no desire to work with anyone, whether that's local government, the federal government, the public or even his own party.
Busse said he's obviously not going to agree with Republicans on a lot of issues, but he believes there are still plenty of moderates out there troubled by the increasingly extreme direction of their party, and those are the kinds of people he wants to build bridges with.
He said if he were to be elected, the Republicans would likely remain in the majority, even if they lose their super-majority and he wants to work across the aisle, but he thinks a Democratic governor might be needed to curb some of the behavior of the extremists.
What little Gianforte does on the federal level, he said, is usually restricted to sounding off on "culture war issues" and bucking the federal government even when it comes to obviously good things they do.
He said the decision by Gianforte this year to not accept $10 million in federal funding for a pandemic-era child nutrition program to feed hungry children was especially egregious.
Busse said there was no downside to accepting these funds that would have helped children in need, and the fact that Gianforte couldn't be bothered with it is absurd.
He said Montana's governor should be willing to fight on the state's behalf on the national level, but being needlessly antagonistic to the federal government and getting into meaningless fights doesn't serve anyone and he thinks he can be Montana's advocate.
Another clear example of Gianforte's arrogance, Busse said, was his attempt to assert executive privilege over documents and communications that are obviously matters of public record.
This issue came to the forefront in a lawsuit brought against Gianforte's office by political consultant Jayson O'Neill, who filed a request in May 2021 for agency bill monitoring forms, which contain communications between the governor's office and state agency leaders regarding legislative bills expected to impact state government operations.
Two months later, the governor's office denied O'Neill's request, citing attorney-client privilege.
Later that year O'Neill filed suit arguing that these documents were obviously subject to the right to know enshrined in the Montana Constitution and that the governor's office lacks any legitimate privileges that would preclude their release.
Gianforte's attorneys also argued that the governor possesses an "executive communications" privilege and a "deliberative process" privilege that serve the public interest by preserving government integrity.
A judge found in late 2022 that the Gianforte administration did not have the right to withhold these documents and that the Montana Constitution's protection of the right to know was made specifically for "precisely this type of government document."
Busse said the governor's office obviously does not have executive privilege over communications like this and the fact that they tried to argue otherwise, for documents that are so obviously a matter of public record demonstrates the arrogance he sees as one of the Gianforte administration's greatest failures.
He also said he thinks Gianforte's apparent aversion to substantive interviews and public forums is very telling, and speaks to how little he respects engagement with the public.
"I guess he thinks he's better than Montana," he said.
Another serious problem Busse said he's seen, one that threatens so much of what he values about Montana, is Gianforte and his fellow Republicans' efforts to roll back civil rights, which has created an atmosphere that promotes hatred and prejudice.
He said Montana has and should be a state where people help each other regardless of color or identity or what they chose to do with their lives, and the recent efforts by Republicans to restrict health care for women and transgender people is a threat to that.
"This has to be a live-and-let-live state," he said. " ... It's not my business who loves who, or how people identify. It's not my business and it's not the Legislature's business either. What business do they have taking people's rights away? This should be a state where people help each other, not hurt each other."
He said the attempts in Montana to restrict access to reproductive health care won't stop at merely restricting abortion rights, but will likely expand to restricting people from going to other states for health care, which he described as "medieval."
Increasingly there have been calls among hardline Republicans in the U.S. to restrict access to contraception, or even roll back laws allowing no-fault divorce, and Busse said he's worried that Montana Republicans may follow suit comparing the attitude underpinning this movement to the dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale."
"They want to control women's decisions," he said.
Busse also criticized Gianforte's influence on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, making appointments that have pushed the organization toward becoming one primarily interested in business interests rather than the public good.
He said FWP has been a shining example to other states for a long time but that's being eroded at the cost of the general public.
When asked if there's anything he thinks Gianforte has done well, he said the only thing he can think of is the decision to ban social media app TikTok.
He said he doesn't have access to the kind of intelligence the governor does, but he thinks that China's government likely does harvest dangerous meta data from the social media app, and the decision to support a ban seems sensible from a national security perspective.
Busse also talked about a number of issues less connected to his issues with Gianforte.
Among those is the right to repair.
As someone who grew up in an agriculture and ranching community, he said, the idea that people aren't allowed to repair their own equipment is ridiculous, especially considering how much they're paying for that equipment in the first place.
He also talked about the meatpacking industry, which is consolidated into four massive companies that are using their near-monopoly power to harm the industry as a whole.
Busse also talked about firearms and firearms ownership during the interview.
He said he's spent much of his career as a gun company executive and is a proud hunter and gun owner himself, but in that time he's seen gun culture in the U.S. change, and not for the better.
He said gun culture in the U.S. has become increasingly radicalized and there is no longer a widespread expectation of decency and safety, and that needs to change.
He said he doesn't necessarily think that there's a need for broad-brushed policy changes, but clearly there needs to be some common-sense measures to prevent people who are a danger to themselves and others from obtaining guns.
Busse said he believes there are things the government can do to turn things around and promote responsible gun ownership and increase safety that don't infringe on people's rights, but the current climate of political extremism will not help that.
Indeed, extremism is one of his central concerns regarding the current state of Montana politics. He said Democrats haven't always risen to the challenge but he will.
"If we say we're in the midst of an existential threat, then we'd better fight like it," he said.
Busse said Montana needs a strong but reasonable advocate, who's pragmatic, but willing to fight for what's right, someone who cares deeply about Montana, and he thinks he's the best candidate.