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An uphill battle for Rick Hill

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As Congress got underway last week following the summer break, Montana's sole representative, Republican Rick Hill, started pulling double duty. This fall, he will prepare to defend his incumbency while pushing for legislation he says is needed to shore up the Big Sky economy and education system.

This fall, the House freshman faces off with Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, Missoula's former county prosecutor, who has been hammering away at Hill on campaign finance reform and other issues. Outside the race for a secure Beltway seat, critics in Montana-especially environmentalists-have been blowing any number of whistles in an effort to help bump the incumbent congressman from the halls of power.

These sources point to Hill's handling of public lands-both in selling and developing them-as examples of the insurance agent-turned-congressman's failing as a true representative of the people.

"Hill is selling public land and basically squandering the money," says Stan Frasier of the Montana Wildlife Federation. "Obviously, he doesn't value public lands as much as we do."

For nearly a month, the Independent hounded Hill's staffers for answers to questions. A request for an interview while Hill was in-state talking to his constituents was granted in August, but the appointment was broken. A second date, at a Republican Party meet-and-greet picnic, concluded with the congressman showing up late and spending mere minutes talking to this reporter.

During that short time, Hill alluded to constituent concerns, and laid out his plan to maintain Montana's quality of life. Hill says he expects that his work on employment and education issues can carry the day come November. In particular, he says, he has heard voters express concerns about low wages and the strength of local economies.

"One of the most important issues I've found on the minds of Montanans is what we need to do for more good paying jobs," Hill says.

Hill says the way to alleviate this worry is to ensure that resource industries keep the state competitive in coming years. He puts forth a plan which combines this tradition with newer employment trends. "I've worked extremely hard to try to strengthen the four sectors of Montana's economy: agriculture, natural resources, tourism and technology," he says.

Hill's focus on agriculture and natural resources draws strong criticism from environmental groups, who point to mining development, railroad construction and logging as issues when Hill favors short-term economic gain over the long-term interests of the state at large.

The recent flap over coal development along the Tongue River Railroad illustrates Hill's commitment to industry, according to Clint McRae, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. Following the elaborate machinations which allowed the federal government to block the New World Gold Mine outside of Yellowstone National Park, Hill drafted legislation which lays tracks for compensating the state of Montana.

If Gov. Marc Racicot and the federal Department of the Interior cannot come up with another plan, Hill calls for $10 million worth of coal from the eastern part of the state to provide funds lost when the gold mine was canceled.

Hill counters that developing the coal would generate revenue to invest in the state's infrastructure. "It's helping us change the character of Montana's economy," he says. Hill's press aid Dan Dubray adds: "We've just put a tool in the toolbox of the governor. It's up to Montana as to how the coal will be used."

By contrast, Deschamps sounds something like the green alarm when discussing economic growth under the Big Sky, expressing resignation over the Tongue River deal. "What's to blame is our heavy reliance on natural resource industries that are in terrible financial states," he says.

Specifically, Deschamps says he's worried about farmers and ranchers, who currently should not be making "depression-era wages." He suggests that diversifying the economic base beyond Montana's traditional money-makers could provide some relief. (Deschamps also pays lip service to the notion of a nation-wide minimum wage increase.)

In Western Montana, Hill comes under fire from environmentalists looking to stem the timber tide. Proponents of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, a radical bill that would eliminate logging on all national forests, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Land Management lands, has been unpopular with the representative-as well as Montana's Senate delegation.

"We don't have any support from the Montana delegation, due to the fact that we have the most left to cut down, and our representatives are still firmly in the back pocket of the timber groups," says Jake Kreilick of the Native Forest Network. "Politically, we aren't going to win based on the support of the Montana and Idaho factions."

Dubray explains that his boss' opposition to the bill isn't based on a vested interest in the timber companies-as Kreilick and others suggest-but rather a concern for those communities that derive economic benefit from the logging. Dubray notes that there are many others who use the roads for non-logging use.

"Even people hunting for mushrooms, which has become a part of the economy, use those roads," Dubray says. "The program is important for a significant part of the economy, but the benefit is for all those who gain in ways less easy to track."

"There are plenty of recreationists who use logging roads for hunting, fishing and gathering access."

When it comes to education, Hill claims to favor an ambitious set of goals for Montana's schools. "We need to have the best education system in the nation," he says.

One way to attain this high-minded priority, Hill says, is to cease providing teachers with tenure. That, he explains, will help school boards weed out sub par instructors-and it's a move Hill's rival Deschamps opposes.

Deschamps says that most problems in the schools should be solved by good administrators. If some teachers are truly unqualified, he says, there are ways to eliminate those positions even if they have tenure. "You shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water," says Deschamps.

These issues among others shape the election season debate-which the two candidates should be having up close and personal before winter arrives. For his part, Deschamps maintains he will keep focusing on protecting family farms and encouraging campaign finance reform. As for Hill, this campaign will be his second in a self-imposed limit of three. "He's a strong advocate of term limits, because he feels it's the way to achieve a citizen legislature," says Dubray.


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