Governor candidates meet in debate in Great Falls
GREAT FALLS — All three candidates for governor met for the first time Friday in a debate that focused on agricultural issues but skirted the one topic that has come to dominate the race's final days — a disputed $500,000 donation to Republican Rick Hill.
The debate held at the Montana Farmers Union's annual convention in Great Falls was the sixth meeting between Republican Rick Hill and Democrat Steve Bullock.
But it's the first time Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender has been invited to participate, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Vandevender blasted both major-party candidates, saying he wouldn't give a one-time tax rebate to homeowners like Bullock proposes or immediately cut property taxes like Hill plans to do.
Instead, the state needs to invest in its infrastructure such as highways to provide better access to the state's resources, Vandevender said. Then, when the economy grows and the tax base expands, he would look at cutting taxes, he said.
"Expansion is the key. Then our taxes will come down, and our businesses will continue to grow," he said.
Both Hill and Bullock, knowing their audience in the standing-room only crowd of 400, repeatedly noted that agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the state and said the industry would be a top priority if elected.
Bullock said the state loses 150 ranches each year, has gone from 200 to 50 grain elevators and pays high rail rates. He said he has fought to keep the "family" in family farms as attorney general, and will continue to do so as governor.
"I will be a fighter for agriculture," Bullock said.
Hill said he would commit to research and improving business regulations as a way to boost the industry in the future. He said he would look to open more markets for Montana products, and criticized Gov. Brian Schweitzer for cutting the staff to the state's Taiwan trade office.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Montana is going to continue to feed the world for generations ahead," Hill said.
The candidates agreed that it is important to keep up funding for agriculture research and keep Montana's Extension Service programs going in the future. They also said the state's eminent domain laws need to be updated.
They disagreed on whether Schweitzer should have vetoed a bill last year that would have added hydroelectric power to the state's list of renewable resources that receive incentives. Hill said the bill should have been signed, while Bullock said it would have created fewer incentives for wind, solar and other renewable resources.
The candidates also revisited well-covered ground, with Bullock outlining his familiar proposals such as freezing college tuition and providing homeowners a $400 rebate meant to stimulate the economy.
Hill, in turn, emphasized his plans to cut property taxes by using more oil and gas revenue to pay for education and to propose a voter initiative capping the state's coal trust fund and use the money to pay for infrastructure improvements in eastern Montana.
The debate was mostly a polite affair, except for occasional jabs between the two front runners. Bullock criticized Hill for speaking so negatively about the state's business climate and joked that Hill at one point seemed to be taking credit for the oil and gas boom in eastern Montana.
Hill flared when Bullock mentioned that the former congressman worked for two governors, when Hill responded that he only worked the administration of Gov. Marc Racicot.
"You need to get your facts right," Hill retorted.
The $500,000 Montana Republican Party donation to Hill did not come up, even though it was their first debate since Bullock sued Hill over its legality.
The former congressman has stood his ground in saying the contribution was legal because it came a day after a federal judge threw out Montana's campaign contribution limits as unconstitutionally low.
Bullock argues Hill must give back the donation because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the limits and Hill's total contributions from political parties now exceed the maximum of $22,600 for a gubernatorial candidate.
Bullock and Hill meet in Bozeman on Saturday night for a final debate before the Nov. 6 election.