Disenchanted voters who think there is little or no difference between Democrats and Republicans might want to consider the House District 60 legislative race.
HD 60 takes in the greater Hamilton and Corvallis area, and includes the tiny Mormon community of Pinesdale, where the 150 or so registered voters tend to vote in a bloc.
The philosophical and political differences between two-term Republican incumbent Allan Walters and Democratic challenger Jim Olsen bring to mind the contest between Pat Williams and Ron Marlenee for Montana’s lone congressional seat following the 1990 census, which left Montana with one congressional district. While Olsen might be termed an old-fashioned Democrat who believes that government can and should play an important role in the life of a community, Walters is a rock-solid conservative Republican who believes the smaller the government, the better for business and society.
Though Walters has sponsored no successful legislation in his two terms—a fact that was soundly criticized in the June primary by his unsuccessful Republican challenger—he has been death on taxes.
In the 1999 legislative session, Walters supported a bill that reduced the tax on motor vehicles. In Ravalli County, that loss of tax revenue was met with dismay and complaints by county officials who were feeling the dual effects of a growing demand on services and less money.
Walters was unfazed. While county officials were bemoaning the loss of revenue, Walters, in his quiet and unassuming way, simply advised them to live within their means.
In one important sense, Walters prevailed; this year Ravalli County, for the first time in recent memory, established a budget that was based on revenues, rather than expenses.
If re-elected to a third term, Walters says his goal will be to cut the state income tax and reduce the size of state government.
Exactly how small does he want state government to be? He doesn’t come up with any specifics for cutting state government departments, but he does tell a story he’s told often—one that apparently has made an impact on him. When the Legislature asked state department heads to come up with ways in which they could cut their budgets, each and every official responded the same way: It couldn’t be done.
“They haven’t kept up with the private sector in terms of efficiency,” Walters says. When asked whether comparing the private sector with the public was a bit like comparing apples to oranges, Walters disagrees. The Legislature, he says, gave state departments virtually all the technology that had been requested, and they still don’t operate any more efficiently. “Just because they’re the public sector doesn’t mean they couldn’t be more efficient.”
Olsen, on the other hand, is a strong believer that government can be a positive force in the lives of ordinary people, especially the working people of the Bitterroot Valley, where one job typically isn’t enough to sustain a family. “I talk about community empowerment and things like we shouldn’t be thinking about bringing in large, corporate businesses,” he notes.
On the big-employer-as-savior issue, Olsen and Walters do agree: It’s not going to happen.
But they disagree entirely over how to improve Ravalli County’s dismal job situation. The Montana Legislature can and should boost existing, successful small business in the Bitterroot Valley, Olsen believes, by redirecting interest generated by the state’s coal tax to Montana businesses. “If you’re going to invest it, invest it in Montana business,” he says.
Too often, he adds, “economic development in Montana means tax subsidies to businesses that leave town once the subsidy runs out. Someone who is from Montana and starts a business here probably isn’t going to leave,” he says.
Olsen lists the successful, homegrown agricultural businesses in Ravalli County: the Ruffatto ranch, Canyon Creek Organics, Lifeline Farm and Roaring Lion Organics. Traditional and organic farming and ranching are employing people in the Bitterroot, he points out, but such ventures could be even more financially viable if those farmers could sell their produce to public schools, for instance. It might cost the taxpayers who support those schools more money, he acknowledges. “But if it costs 5 percent more, isn’t it worth it” to the community at large, he asks.
On the other hand, legislative support should not go to the “big box” stores, Olsen says. Chain stores send most of their profits out of the community and back to the corporate boardrooms, stockholders and foreign suppliers, while most of the profits from the mom-and-pop shops are circulated back into the community.
“We need to look into these ideas,” Olsen says of his strategies to support independent businesses. “They’re ideas that work in other places.” Walters, on the other hand, doesn’t believe government has much of a role to play in boosting business, other than to create a business-friendly climate by cutting taxes and regulations. “Offhand,” he says when asked how the Legislature can help local business, “I don’t know of anything. This area is never going to be a place to start out. I don’t see much hope of improving that situation.”
Aside from Olsen’s Democratic message in a largely Republican community, he may face another hurdle. Olsen also is president of Friends of the Bitterroot, a love-‘em-or-hate-‘em environmental group that has been making waves in the Bitterroot Valley for more than a decade. “For some people,” he says, his FOB presidency “is a plus. For others it’s a minus. And for some it’s not an issue at all. The people around here know what they’re getting when they get me.”
Asked to summarize their differences, Olsen first points to his goal of empowering the community to set its own financial destiny, then jokes, “I don’t believe grizzly bear [reintroduction] is a U.N. conspiracy.”
In past public meetings Walters had publicly stated his fear of the United Nations. When asked whether he still worried about the U.N., and what his specific fears were, Walters said he is still concerned with a U.N. program that designates specific sites around the world as culturally significant World Heritage Sites worthy of special protection. Among the sites listed are Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Walters worries that the World Heritage Site designation will someday allow the U.N. to gain management of the two parks. “I wasn’t really worried about the U.N.,” he says. “I was just talking about our national parks becoming World Heritage Sites. That’s why they’re called national parks. They belong to the public.”
Walters sums up the difference between the two candidates by pointing to Olsen’s leadership of Friends of the Bitterroot. “I think he would be narrowly minded on environmental issues, where I’m more multiple-use. I’m in tune with the Republican idea—smaller government, less taxes.”