Death and taxes may be American guarantees, but talking to Montana legislative wannabes, you're more likely to hear a refrain of education and taxes.
This winter, when the 56th Montana Legislature gathers in Helena for 90 days of hashing out laws and making budget decisions, the elected candidates will be faced with many choices, ranging from where school funds are going to come from to whether the environment needs more or less protection.
What follows is a brief profile of the races in Missoula County, the candidates, and what they'd like to accomplish.
• House District 64 features a race between a longtime open space and environmental advocate, Democrat Ron Erickson, and the Republican Lynn Link, whose only words to the press confirmed her ties to the Christian right.
Link refused an interview with the Independent because, she says, the media can "cremate" candidates and "voters are what really matter." She did state that her beliefs are in line with the Christian Right and that she is pro-life.
Erickson, a pro-choice candidate, wants funding for education to be a top priority, and says it should be placed ahead of the construction of prisons-a hot topic in recent sessions. "We need to understand that if the state is to have a future it needs well-educated people-that has been partially ignored in the past," he says. Erickson adds that one of the reasons he decided to run was the worsening of the environmental laws in Montana, such as the bill that allows businesses to regulate themselves. • In House District 62 a very strong 2nd Amendment supporter and gunsmith Republican Matt Brainard, an incumbent, faces off with Democrat John Lynn, a member of the Target Range School Board.
Lynn focuses on increasing state funding for education instead of asking homeowners to increase their taxes for K-12 education. "Everyone in the district seems to be concerned about property tax relief, jobs and creating jobs, and education," he says.
Brainard says "taxation and money" are crucial to the state because an "awful lot of what the legislature presides over is money." In allotting state money for education, Brainard wants to see funding match the number of students so, if a district is enrolling fewer students, less money would go to that district.
As for the environment, Brainard would like to leave the present environmental standards in place while Lynn would like to return to stricter standards. • House District 63 features an open seat, which has drawn the attentions of two newcomers who have sought to distinguish themselves. Democrat Wayne Fairchild, a river guide and wilderness outfitter, and Republican Dick Haines, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, are hoping for the opportunity to serve this district.
Both candidates cite taxes as an important issue to their constituents-although their views are by no means identical. Haines, who pledged to not increase taxes, would like to bring in new businesses to Montana, which will provide more jobs and reduce taxes, he says.
By contrast, Fairchild does not support a sales tax but does support taxes connected with tourism, such as the hotel tax. Fairchild adds that he would like to bring in environmentally-friendly businesses which offer good paying jobs. But, Fairchild says that he doesn't think tourism can replace mining or logging, adding that any budget surplus should be used to fund education. • In a case of old hand vs. new kid on the block, Democrat Gail Gutsche, a former lobbyist, takes on Republican Jon Williams, an 18 year old with little political experience for House District 66.
Both Gutsche and Williams agree that education is the key issue. Williams wants to fund the schools to fix the physical disrepair of buildings. Gutsche, whose concerns also include reproductive freedom and ecological sustainability, wants to increase funding for special education, shrink class sizes and improve classroom equipment with money from the state surplus. She also says that the most important thing for the state university system is to pass the six mill levy, which she says would help maintain current funding levels. "This is not a new tax. It is the same tax we have had for 50 years. If people understand that then they will pass it," she says.
Williams says that the state needs to reward businesses that pay higher wages. He sees himself as the best candidate because he says he doesn't have a "third party agenda"-referring to Gutsche's ties to the New Party, a liberal PAC. He adds that he will be able to represent the district better because he is in the party that holds the majority. "My opponent will not be able to get appointments [to committees] and I will because it is a Republican-run congress," Williams says.
Referring to measures passed in recently, Gutsche responds that "some of the most devastating laws have come from the Republican majority, such as environmental self-audit and energy deregulation." • In House District 67, Democrat Tom Facey's priority is education funding. "One of the few ways you can improve wages is to improve education. There is a corollary there," he says, adding that he wants Montana's economy to move away from its reliance on extractive industries. "We need to shift from the natural resource base," he says.
Facey's challenger is not a Republican, but Libertarian. In his most recent conversation with the Independent, Libertarian Mike Fellows came across as somewhat evasive, but acknowledges that he wants to find "more and different" ways to fund education. "We need to get money to where the kids are," says Fellows.
Fellows says, however, that he does not believe that the government should "force" people to pay for education. He also does not support the six mill levy for the university system. • If education is a hot issue for some, other youth benefits are topping House District 68 incumbent Democrat Carolyn Squires' list of priorities. While her opponent Republican Jay Sage says he's looking for a way to decrease the burden of taxes on seniors, Squires is hoping to continue work on a program for children's health insurance.
"I think it is an innovative idea," Squires says. "About 20,000 kids are not covered by health insurance, and with this initial phase we can help 950 kids and lay the groundwork for the rest of the program."
Both candidates point to property taxes as a critical issue for the next legislative session. Their district was recently annexed by the city and residents have had to pay for sewer installments. "The only thing rivaling campaign signs here is "For Sale" signs," Sage says, adding that the best remedy is to exempt property owners over 65 from some taxes. • Although there are three candidates vying for House District 69, Democrat Carol Williams seems poised to take the seat. Williams, the wife of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, says education and property taxes are top issues. She is supportive of the funding increases for special education and K-12 education, as well as the six mill levy.
Williams' experience includes working at the legislature in Helena and being involved with issues that her husband worked on while he was in the state and national legislature. She's a longtime arts advocate as well.
Republican Dave Hathaway calls special attention to jobs. "We need to attract better paying jobs and more competition among businesses."
Hathaway also says that the money for education is not going to where it is needed-the classrooms. He wants to see existing funding and any increased funding head to teachers' salaries, school buildings and classroom equipment, he says. Hathaway adds that property taxes for homeowners could be cut if more businesses were in Montana paying taxes.
Rev. Dale Blackford of the Natural Law Party says that the biggest problem in state politics is how politicians think. Blackford wants the state to move away from two-party elections. "We need to start voting for issues, not a party," he says. • Democrat Linda McCulloch and Republican Hal Schaible, who are in the race for House District 70 do not agree about funding for education. Incumbent McCulloch points out that the state's share for schools has decreased and so property taxes have increased and she would like to see the state providing more funding.
Schaible wants to study the education budget and "see if there is pork to cut in administration." He says that class sizes are shrinking so funding should not be increased. Schaible adds that while the environment is important, people come first. "Montana is rich in resources. I don't think good paying jobs will come out of the tourism industry. We can't turn the state into a playground of the elite," he says.
McCulloch says that she tries to look at both sides of the issue. She says, "I am always very conscious of the environment , but Stone Container is in this district and I am very conscious of the jobs also." • In House District 71, Democrat Bob Culp and Republican Sylvia Bookout-Reinicke, the incumbent, both say they would work to reform property taxes for the state.
Culp adds that education and the environment are also top priorities. He says, "We have a projected budget excess and I propose we save it. I'd like to see the money used in education-for teacher's salaries, lab equipment and smaller classrooms.
As for the environment, Culp agrees that there is a "jobs vs. environment" perception among the public but, he says, "As long as corporations are meeting the federal and state standards we should encourage them to come here and be responsible businesses in Montana."
Bookout-Reinicke says that she wants to a balance between jobs and the environment and that can be achieved by dealing with property rights. "Property rights will take care of the environment because no one wants to harm their own property," she says. "I would never do anything that could harm my own well water."