The candidates for the state Senate to represent District 17 have some similarities in their background, and on a few state issues, but also some strong differences on how they think the Legislature should act on most issues.
Both Democrat Greg Jergeson and Don Richman are Blaine County natives in their 60s, have raised their families there and have ties to agriculture, education and politics. They are active in their communities and in service and business organizations.
Richman has served on the Harlem school board and city council, including heading each body. He worked for his father’s farm implement dealership and other Harlem businesses and then entered the insurance business, acting as owner and operator of Richman Insurance since 1980.
Jergeson previously served as a state senator and on the state Public Service Commission, leaving each body due to term limits; farmed in Blaine County and worked for the Montana State University-Northern Foundation.
Both candidates also said one of their reasons for running is to try to make the Legislature more productive.
Jergeson said that when he left the PSC he had no intention to run again for office. But after watching the last Legislative session, and having people who live in SD 17, which includes northern Hill and Blaine counties, come and ask him to reconsider, he decided to file.
A 22-year veteran of the Senate, Jergeson said people asked him to “try to lead all those effectively inexperienced legislators in a way that would make them more productive less given to drawing political swords over … every single solitary issue.
“That’s my major commitment, ” Jergeson added. “The Legislature ought to be the people’s primary governmental agency that supports the public, and it should be more responsible and more productive than the last session was. ”
Richman said his experience operating a business would help him make the Legislature more productive, and to push for good legislation.
He said he has a couple of reasons for running.
“More than a couple, actually, ” he said.
Richman said the Legislature seems to keep bickering over issues like natural resources, job creation and education, and he wants to work on those. He added that opposing abortion also is one of his top issues.
Richman said he wants to help resolve the confrontational style of the last Legislature — which puts him at odds with Republican House candidates Reps. Wendy Warburton and Kris Hansen, who have said the Legislature did work productively but has been misrepresented by the media as being heavily partisan and controversial.
Richman said he wants to help the next Legislature work in a bipartisan fashion.
“I really felt that the last Legislature did a lot of squabbling and not getting anything done …, ” he said. “I would like to see if we can get things done for Montana working together … not worrying about if you’re a Republican or Democrat. ”
Jergeson said he believes his experience could help do just that. He said he learned a lot, when he started as a senator, from experienced legislators like Rep. Frances Bardanouve, D-Harlem, and Miles City rancher Sen. Bill Mathers, a Republican.
“I learned a lot from those fellows about how the Legislature should do its work, ” Jergeson said. “How, even when there were some differences based on principles, you find ways to find common ground. ”
Opposite views on health care reform
The candidates have completely opposite views on another issue — implementing the health care reform act.
The U. S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was constitutional, although it ruled that the act’s expansion of Medicaid could not be forced onto states. The state’s have the option to implement the expansion, the court ruled.
Richman opposes the requirements of the act and the expansion of Medicaid.
“No I don’t (support expanding Medicaid), ” he said. “Number one, it will break the system. There is absolutely no way Montana can afford it. … It just absolutely is not going to work.
“I think we need to be completely proactive and do what we can to stop the implementation of (the health care reform), ” he added. “The state of Montana is going to be completely broke if we let the Affordable Care Act and federal government down our throats. ”
Jergeson said he has the opposite view. The Medicaid expansion would reduce costs, by allowing people to get medical care before they are forced to go to the emergency room without paying for care — and people with insurance and other paying customers end up paying the bill, he said.
“I think it ought to fit Montana’s standards to expand Medicaid, but I think it ought to be keyed to reducing the unreimbursed costs that providers are subject to and that are borne by the rest of us …, ” he said. “And I am sure that clearly with the Supreme Court ruling we would be allowed that flexibility to work out something that fits Montana. ”
He said the Legislature also ought to be taking steps to implement the reforms so they work for Montana, such as setting up a state-run insurance exchange rather than using the federal model.
Both candidates gave similar comments on the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that has increased corporate campaign contributions in Montana and the rest of the nation.
“I don’t think the Supreme Court made the proper decision in this case, ” Jergeson said. “It’s never been logical to me that somehow a business organization somehow inherits the rights of a human being as a person. ”
He said that, when he was farming, he chose the corporate form of business — but the corporation wasn’t him and he wasn’t the corporation.
The result of the ruling has been that far too much money has been dumped, unaccounted for, into campaigns, Jergeson added, and he applauded the state attorney general for taking on the issue.
“But I doubt very much that the Legislature can do a whole lot, ” he said, although he added that Initiative 166 — an initiative on the November ballot stating that corporations are not people — “Is kind of interesting. … I think it’s worth trying. ”
Richman said he has struggled with the decision, and its impacts, but that he doubts much can be done about it.
“My feelings on Citizens United is, we’re stuck with it, so we need to make it work to the best of our abilities …, ” he said. “I feel that freedom of speech has trumped (campaign finance regulations). We’re stuck with it, now figure out how to make it work.”
The two candidates had polar opposite views on allowing civil unions in Montana — with similar justifications.
“I think (civil unions) probably should (be allowed) …, ” Jergeson said. “I don’t mean to get all religious on it, but when I think about my faith, it taught that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. it seems to me that statutory discrimination against somebody who is different from yourself probably doesn’t comport with that teaching.
“I think the legal discrimination ought to be eliminated, ” Jergeson said, adding that he does not believe religious organizations should be forced to accept a new definition of marriage for their services.
“I’m totally against them, ” Richman said when asked the question. “I don’t think they should be allowed in any way, shape or form.
“I my mind, it goes back to my beliefs that the Bible is our code of conduct, and it states one man, one woman.”
State budget and programs
The two also strongly disagreed on how the budgeting process proceeded in the 2011 Legislature.
The Republican-controlled Legislature made dramatic cuts to the budget proposed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, citing revenue forecasts by the legislative fiscal bureau that were much lower than what Schweitzer predicted.
When the fiscal bureau revised its estimates higher mid-session, although still lower than the governor’s forecast, Democrats proposed adding funding to the budget. Almost all of those amendments were shot down.
After the session, the forecasts have continued to be revised until now the forecast is significantly higher than Schweitzer’s budget proposal predicted — which the governor said before the session would probably happen.
When asked about the budget, and specific failed amendments to increase funding for the state university system, children’s health insurance, senior citizen prescription medication assistance and low income energy assistance, the two had sharply contrasting comments. The same was true on what should be done by the next Legislature with the extra money Montana has in the bank.
“It sounds to me like we overcharged our customers — send it back, ” Richman said, advocating a straight tax refund for the ending fund balance above the state’s normal reserve.
He also said he agrees with the Republican majority in voting down the proposed budget increases.
“No, I am plumb comfortable with the fact that we need to shrink state government, we need to shrink federal government …, ” Richman said, adding that the Legislature should reduce state spending, “instead of figuring out ways to spend the money. ”
Jergeson cited his experience serving in the Senate when the Children’s Health Insurance Program — the forerunner to the Healthy Montana Kids program — was started. He said legislators criticized the state auditor for trying to create the program, and people for wanting the program — until he pointed out the Montana taxpayers were paying the legislators’ health insurance premiums.
“I pointed out that little paradox to them and they quit arguing about the need for the CHIPS program, ” Jergeson said. “It always amazes me that there are some people who are willing to accept all sorts of things in support from the taxpayers, yet somehow or the other, find fault with other parts of population having need for assistance from the taxpayers. ”
He said the Legislature should have approved increased funding for programs such as Big Sky Rx, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, the Montana University System and Healthy Montana Kids.
He said how the ending fund balance should be used depends on its source — some one-time money could be used for things like paying for new public buildings, such as the new building for Northern’s automotive and diesel technology programs. Part of that should be used to make up the gap in state retirement programs, he said.
“The circumstance with the retirement system is not an immediate emergency, but it is, for the long-term, a very large issue, ” Jergeson said.
Money from ongoing revenue streams should be used to strengthen programs to help people in need, like LIEAP, and state programs like the university system, allowing quality education to be provided without needing to increase tuition every year. Another is the obligation to provide the K12 public education system, he said. allowing local schools to teach without forcing more additional property tax increases.
“When the Legislature cuts state support for local schools, that’s not being taxpayer friendly, that’s actually forcing local property taxes higher, ” Jergeson said.
The Havre Daily News asked the candidates for Senate District 17, Democrat Greg Jergeson and Republican Don Richman, to give short answers to a series of questions. Following are their answers.
What should the state do to increase business expansion and job creation?
Jergeson: “The state already does a lot with … various programs that are available to help business development and community development. Those things ought to be maintained and strengthened. At some point you can’t give enough tax breaks … you shouldn’t be offering a tax incentive for somebody to open a steel mill to smelt steel in Montana because it just wont work.
Richman: “We need to reduce our bureaucracy and our permitting process. ”
What, if anything, should the state government do to encourage and increase the production of alternative fuel and energy like biodiesel?
Jergeson: The program at (Montana State University) -Northern was a good start, but biodiesel, probably even more than gasohol, I think has a real future, and as an economic source of energy for both business and agriculture and individual travel. ”
Richman: “In my mind, we need to continue to work with those people but” it should be driven by the private sector. “The state government needs to let our business people step in and manage our national resources. ”
Should the state implement a sales tax?
Jergeson: “No. ”
Richman: “Point blank yes. I would like to see a sales tax. It’s the most fair tax in the world. Is it going to happen? Not a chance. … if you have a tax that says if you buy it you pay the tax if you don’t you don’t; ” many people from other states visit and spend in Montana, “and we don’t tax them. It just isn’t fair. ”
Should the state increase the share it funds of the Montana University System:
Jergeson: “Yes. ”
Richman: “No. I don’t think that thats the answer to funding education. I’m not sure what the answers are. Lets sit down and figure this out how to make it work for everybody, ” maybe by tapping another source like the coal tax trust fund.
Should the state increase the share it funds of K12 public education?
Jergeson “Yes. ”
Richman: “It’s same thing (as university funding). I was on the school board last time they sued (to require the state to pay more). I don’t think we’re a bit better off. ”
What, if anything, should the state change to increase development of coal, oil and natural extraction?
Jergeson: “Thats not an either-or kind of question. … As a public service commissioner I supported NorthWestern (Energy) acquiring Colstrip 4 as a generating asset. It had a sound business plan. I objected to and fought the building of the Highwood Station in Great Falls simply because it was not a business plan that was indicated to make any damn sense and approving something just ’cause it’s fired by coal and ending up with a white elephant is no answer at all. ”
Richman: “I am a firm believer that we need to take advantage of our resources. This is the treasure state (but we aren’t using our treasures). “I think we have enough natural resources to take (care of all of our needs.) We need to open this up. ”