MISSOULA — Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill told a statewide television audience Wednesday night that Montana’s economy is in a rut, and that he’d help get it going by erasing a “hostile” business climate and reforming education.
“The tragedy of Montana is that we live in a state with all of this wealth … yet here we are, near the bottom in terms of what we can (earn),” he said.
Yet his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock, repeatedly insisted during a debate that Montana has “great things going on,” that it doesn’t help to keep focusing on the negative, and that he’d expand opportunities for the state.
“It seems like (Hill) seeks out an organization that will (rank) us the worst … when good things are happening,” Bullock said. “I’m not going to run by saying how bad things are. … (As governor) you don’t become the great detractor.”
Those two visions of the state personified the fourth debate between Hill and Bullock this fall, in their quest to become Montana’s next governor. Libertarian Ron Vandevender also is in the race.
The winner will succeed Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who can’t run again because of term limits.
Hill, a former congressman, and Bullock debated in a studio on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, with the debate broadcast live across the state on Montana Public Television.
Hill said Montana is 49th in the nation in per capita income, as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and ranks low in other wage and job-creation categories.
He said as governor he would work to overhaul Montana’s regulations, legal climate and education system to make students more prepared for the workforce and encourage businesses to invest in the state. He noted that most major business groups have endorsed him.
“We have to address things that are holding us back,” Hill said. “A lot of businesses don’t invest in Montana because it is perceived as a very difficult place to do business.”
Bullock, however, said many organizations give Montana high marks on its tax structure and business practices, and that he doesn’t see the same problems. He said he wants to invest in Montana’s education system and diversify its economy.
The two men also discussed their thoughts on issues like abortion, gay rights, school funding and higher education. Here’s a snap-shot of what they said:
School funding: Hill reiterated his plan for using oil-and-gas tax revenue to replace property-tax revenue for schools, and then lower property taxes across the board. He said oil-and-gas taxes are a “more dynamic source” of money for schools, because it will grow in coming years, and that Montana property taxpayers need a break.
Bullock dismissed this plan as a “bait and switch,” because it’s not new money for schools. However, when asked for his school-funding plan, he mentioned some possible changes in current funding formulas, but didn’t clarify what he would support.
Hill also said he wants to cap money going to Montana’s coal-tax trust fund and use part of that money for new school buildings and infrastructure.
Higher education: Bullock said he supports freezing tuition at state colleges the next two years, using money from the state surplus to offset rising costs.
Hill said he, too, wants to stop tuition from rising, but would approach it by pushing the state University System to build a budget that keeps costs in check, with the goal of preventing rising tuition.
When asked what percentage of the system’s budget should be supported by the state, neither candidate answered the question directly.
Abortion: Hill said he considers abortion the destruction of a human life, and that he supports banning partial-birth abortion, requiring a minor’s parent to be notified if she is getting an abortion, and requiring women to have “informed consent” before getting an abortion.
Bullock said the decision on abortion should be made by a woman and her physician.
When asked if he would vote for a Montana ballot measure that requires parental notification for minors, Bullock said a similar law has already been declared unconstitutional in Montana. However, he didn’t say directly how he would vote on the ballot measure.
Gay rights: Hill said people should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, but that he does not support protecting gays and lesbians in Montana’s hate-crimes law. He said people should be held accountable for violent crimes against anyone, regardless of which group they are.
Bullock said he supports adding “sexual orientation” to the list of people against whom certain crimes would be considered hate crimes.