With the Nov. 6 election rapidly approaching legislative candidates from House District 71 and Senate District 36 participated in their first debate Monday night in Virginia City.
The debate was hosted by The Madisonian and moderated by editor Greg Lemon. Prior to the debate an informal reception with the candidates was sponsored by Ruby Valley National Bank in Sheridan and Twin Bridges and First Madison Valley Bank in Ennis.
The HD 71 race is between two challengers, Independent Kim Miller from Virginia City and Republican Ray Shaw from Sheridan. Incumbent representative Bob Wagner was defeated by Shaw in June’s primary. A write-in candidate Don Lepinsky has also filed for the office, but won’t appear on the ballot. He is non-partisan and was not able to attend the debate.
In the SD 36 race, incumbent Republican Debby Barrett from Dillon is being challenged by Democrat Richard Turner from Dillon.
The debate covered four broad topic areas: natural resources, education, economy and health care.
The first question to the candidates focused on candidates’ views on wolf management.
Shaw believed that the number of wolves statewide should be reduced. He also supported giving ranchers more latitude in killing wolves on their land.
“All they’re (wolves) doing is causing trouble,” Shaw said.
The problems with wolves also extends to impacts on wildlife and he believes the state is beginning to see a negative economic impact of smaller elk herds because hunters aren’t coming like they used to.
“Right here in this valley we are losing hunters by the droves because of the wolf problem,” Shaw said.
Miller agreed wolf management was a big issue. She said it was important to keep the wolf numbers above the level required to keep the wolves off the Endangered Species List.
“There’s a balancing act between lowering the predator ratio, but keeping it high enough so the control can remain with the state,” Miller said.
However, the bureaucracy around wolf management seems to be the issue.
“They (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks) are not paying attention to ranchers in this area,” she said.
Her suggestion was to change the composition of the FWP commission, which is the body that sets policy for the agency. Currently the commission is made up of five individuals appointed by the governor. Miller suggested moving to a seven-member commission with two ranchers, two sportsmen, a biologist and two at large members.
She also supported bringing the wolf numbers down.
Turner suggested the wolves introduced in the Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the 1990s were actually a larger species of Canadian grey wolves.
“They travel greater distances and are better killing machines,” Turner said.
He also favors controlling the wolf population, but said the number of animals required to maintain the species should be left up to the experts.
“We have wolves because of the federal government,” Barrett said. “They reintroduced them and forced them on us.”
Barrett supported in making FWP do more to actively manage wolves. The agency has ignored legislation Barrett sponsored in the last legislative session that gave the FWP funding for wolf management and was intended to direct that money be available for on-ground management activities. Efforts in the past year from local representatives to put pressure on FWP have worked some, she said.
“I think they are doing better but they’re nowhere near where they need to be,” Barrett said.
She also supported lowering wolf numbers.
“We are swimming in wolves and we need to bring those numbers down,” she said.
The next question dealt with legislative solutions to helping communities deal with wildfire protection.
Miller supported a plan that would put all private lands into a fire district, which would enable more broad-based funding for local fire departments.
She also supported better planning to make sure access to homes within fire prone areas are accessible.
Shaw agreed with Miller, but had concerns as to where money would come from to fix access and equipment problems.
“I think we have personal freedoms in this country and I think we have responsibilities that come with them,” Barrett said.
She didn’t support a plan to put all private land under a fire district, because many people live in areas where a fire district won’t help. People who own property should be allowed to build where they’d like, but they would need to assume the risk of being in a fire prone area.
She also pointed to the Forest Service for their lack of forest management. The wildfire problems are on the national forest and coming on to private land, she said.
“They (national forests) are in terrible condition,” she said. “They haven’t been managed for years.”
“I have been paying my fire district to save them and it’s not my responsibility to save them, therefore I do agree that statewide everyone pays into this system,” she said.
If you choose to live in a fire prone area, you need to take responsibility and pay for your fair share of the tax burden for fire protection, Miller said.
The next topic was education.
Miller’s biggest concern was charter schools and the potential damage they would do to the public school system. She was also concerned about the level of teacher salaries, which are some of the lowest in the country.
“We need to restructure the system. We need to get quality teachers to live here and stay here,” she said.
Shaw was concerned with where the money would come from to support schools. The communities in Madison County are all aging.
“We’re an aging community,” he said. “People on fixed incomes really don’t like to vote for money for schools.”
Shaw discussed school consolidation and said it might be a solution to the lack of funding, particularly in the Ruby Valley, where Twin Bridges and Sheridan schools are only about 10 miles apart.
“I’m not opposed to that. If that will give our kids a better education, better teachers why not do that?” he asked. “If we can give our kids a better education, let’s consolidate the two schools.”
Barrett said public school funding is the biggest mess in the state of Montana. A school district has 47 different accounts they can put money into, which is unnecessary.
“We need to get the money to the schools and have the schools use it as they need it,” she said.
Barrett feels the schools in Montana are top heavy with administration. Montana has more than 500 school districts, while Wyoming, by comparison, has less than 50. Each school district has to have administration and so less school districts could save money. She said consolidation should be decided on the local level, but she supported making consolidation easier.
Turner has been a teacher most of his life and said that beyond the discussion of funding, local schools should be applauded for their high graduation rates.
“This speaks very well for our teachers and the parents who support the teachers and the administration that controls the learning environment,” Turner said.
He supported redistributing money from oil and mineral rich counties to poorer school districts to help with funding issues.
Moving to the topic of health care, the candidates wrestled with what to do concerning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was President Barrack Obama’s key piece of health care legislation.
Barrett doesn’t support the act and thinks it’s not affordable.
Changes she would support would be allowing insurance companies to compete for clients across state lines. She would also support reducing the number of insurance mandates in Montana, that dictate what health care issues insurance companies must cover.
“We have raised the cost of health insurance every single year with these mandates,” she said.
Turner disagreed with Barrett. He supported the Affordable Care Act. He felt the negative, emotional reaction to the legislation was because of the animosity toward President Obama.
“It has a lot of goods features,” he said.
He pointed toward allowing insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions as a benefit.
He also supported a Medicaid expansion in Montana, which is part of the Affordable Care Act. The federal government would pay for that expansion initially, Turner said.
Miller recognized the Affordable Care Act was complex. She pointed out the state Medicaid programs that focus on children, poor and elderly.
However, education was needed to help families figure out insurance options for their families.
The health care system needs a lot of work, Shaw said. But he supported keeping Medicare.
“If we lose Medicare, the way it’s set up now, Our little hospitals and nursing homes are going to suffer immensely, probably won’t make it,” Shaw said.
On the economy, Barrett felt the economy is still struggling and though improving, it’s not back to where it needs to be. Governor Schweitzer has touted a $450 million surplus, but the state pension fund is in the red to the tune of $7 billion, she said. So touting a surplus in the face of the deficits in the state pension funds is absurd.
She did support relaxing the Montana Environmental Protection Act to help spur economic development around the state’s natural resources.
“Just getting rid of regulations, we can use the treasures in our treasure state for education for health care and for its people,” she said.
Turner said he supported wilderness because it was an economic resource important to the state, referring to the wilderness designations proposed in Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
“Let’s embrace wilderness as one of our greatest treasures,” Turner said.
The state economy is diverse from tourism, to mining, logging and of course agriculture, Miller said.
She supported all those aspects of the economy, but would support making sure mining and logging companies should put forth bonds to pay for restoration and reclamation projects, which also provide good paying jobs.
Shaw opposed Tester’s bill. He discussed his love for the Snowcrest Mountains, part of which would be included as wilderness.
“It’s already wilderness,” Shaw said. “It’s not going any place. We’re not going to destroy it.”
The trade off in Tester’s bill was to designate wilderness with the promise of more timber being cut on the forest.
“There’s not a guarantee in there that there’ll be one tree cut, and there won’t be,” he said.
The next candidate forum will be held in Twin Bridges on Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Montana Room of the Twin Bridges High School.
The candidates also discussed the Montana Heritage Commission and potential changes.
Turner supported the state funding the MHC more directly.
Barrett agreed. The state made the decision to buy the properties in Nevada and Virginia Cities and the state should fund it.
“I think the state has to step up to the plate,” she said. “If they own it they have to take care of it.”
Shaw felt similarly. He also applauded the MHC’s marketing efforts this past year.
Miller agreed as well.
“The state purchased it. They’re responsible for it,” she said.
She also supported reducing the size of the commission and loosening up some administrative rules that would allow more money from the sale of properties to be used more directly by the MHC.
The following night, another candidate forum will be held at the LaHood Steakhouse near Whitehall at 7 p.m.
There will also be a Madison County Commissioner candidate forum at the Alder Firehall on Monday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.