TWIN BRIDGES – The Twin Bridges Rotary Club hosted a public forum last Wednesday in the Montana Room of the Twin Bridges high school for candidates in the upcoming November election to discuss key issues.
The forum was moderated by Ken Walsh, president of the Ruby Valley National Bank, and included House District 71 candidates Kim Miller, Ray Shaw and write-in Don Lepinsky, Senate District 36 incumbent Senator Debby Barrett and challenger Richard Turner, and Madison County Commission District 1 incumbent Commissioner Dave Schulz and challenger Ken Yecny.
The discussion began with a question for the HD-71 and SD-36 candidates about repealing the 18-month tax holiday currently in place for the collection of gross proceeds on oil, considering the recent boom in oil and gas drilling in Montana.
Turner replied first and admitted he was not informed on the issue.
“I don’t know about this particular issue with the oil companies. I’m suspicious of it. I wonder what an industry with huge profits has to worry about sufficient that they want an 18-month tax holiday. I don’t see that they probably need it or deserve it,” Turner said.
Senator Barrett argued the impacts to the economy from the tax-holiday.
“We need these companies to come to Montana, and if that tax break can help them that would bring them here. The increase in income taxes that are paid now is an increase in the volume of oil being developed; it isn’t new people coming to Montana. So we need to keep that there. I agree that there are problems at the local area where there are impacts, and I think that can be changed with the way the state appraises these places and their taxes go. So much stay in the county, so much come to the state to be distributed to the rest of the schools, and I think that can be changed so more that stays locally, because I think there is an impact where that is happening,” Barrett said.
“The third thing that I think would help in those areas that are being impacted is our current laws right now, the taxes are different for cities and for counties. And where the county might be making more money, depending on where the actual oil well drilling is happening, the cities aren’t getting the money. They aren’t getting the necessary funds too,” she continued. “So we can change laws and I think take care of people, but I would keep that in place in Montana because we are behind all of the rest of the states in oil production and we need this revenue in our state.
“It would not make sense, in my opinion, to leave our resources for future generations. If we can develop them now and use them wisely, we need them. We need the taxes in our towns and in our schools and to run this state.”
HD-71 candidate Don Lepinsky cautioned against exploiting the states natural resources.
“We do have an abundance of resources out east, and traditionally in Montana out of state companies have come in and they’ve mined, and they’ve made profits and they’ve left us with the consequences. So I would vote to end the 18-month tax holiday. I think those resources out there; yes they’re going to be developed someday. Oil is only going to go up in price, lets get the most value for these resources. Lets keep the coins in our pockets and not in an out of state executives pocket. When these resources are gone they’re gone, so lets get the most value out of them that we can,” Lepinsky said. “I think a responsible use of our resources would be to build a foundation that we can expand off of. Then when the price of oil and gas goes up like it will, we wont need a tax holiday for oil and gas companies to come into the state. They’ll be here.”
Miller argued in favor of small businesses, voicing an opposition to the tax holiday for oil companies.
“Small businesses in Montana are 97 percent of our economy,” Miller said. “I do not believe in the tax holiday. I think it should be used more for small businesses instead of large corporations.
“We have these large corporations that are given the tax holiday, which I do not agree with. I believe we should maybe reverse that just a little bit and give this tax holiday to our small business owners around the state. I believe that would increase our economy, and they employ more people really than the gas and oil does statewide,” she continued. “The University of Wyoming has already done studies that there is no evidence to support any argument at all whether it would stop drilling if you removed the tax holiday.”
Shaw offered his support for the tax holiday.
“I’m a natural resource person, and I love to see those companies out there,” he said before proceeding to cite statistics on Montana’s oil industry.
“$440 million in fiscal inputs, including $230 million in production taxes, $75 million in production royalties, $78 million in property taxes. Those are big numbers. Those are huge numbers,” Shaw said.
“I have talked to a bunch of people that have been impacted by the oil industry. One thing that we need to do as a state is when the revenue comes to the state … it goes from the state back to the counties. The counties and the towns don’t always get along, so we need to make it equitable so there is more of that money that goes directly to those towns, and I have been told that would help immensely,” he continued.
“I’m in favor of the holiday. Lets bring those companies here, let’s use our natural resources responsibly. We’re not going to make a mess, we wont let them make a mess. We’re Montanans. We live here, and our families will be here after they are gone,” said Shaw.
The discussion then shifted to the Madison County Commission District 1 as Walsh asked Yecny and Schulz how they would continue to develop the countywide road maintenance system and if they supported adding a public works position to oversee the roads.
Yecny responded first, saying that rough roads are often a part of life in a rural setting like Madison County.
“At one time the county taxes for the roads were froze at 12 mills, and they had to get by with that money for many years, that same mill levy. I think they do a great job with the roads, our roads have improved every year. I have a problem with people moving here and complaining about a road. They bought the property, they know what they were getting to, and if they wanted a better road maybe they should have stayed where they were. But I think the commissioners do a great job with what they have,” he said.
Commissioner Schulz explained how the county’s road districts work under the current system.
“The three commissioners are the supervisors of their respective road departments, and we have the budget broke out based a little bit on population, a little bit on road miles and certainly a good element of that is based on miles traveled. We try and do as reasonable a job as we can on trying to count cars and trying to justify which roads have the highest use, which then rolls over to which roads get the highest maintenance,” Schulz said.
“Our road budgets today, although they’re not great, certainly do help us to suffice to continue to improve roads as best we can,” he added. “We’re the ones that get the phone calls on the roads, so it makes good sense that we’re the ones that respond both to the individual making the call and the road crew out doing the work to take care of that issue.”
The discussion shifted back to the House and Senate District candidates with a question about how each candidate might play a role in supporting the agriculture industry. Miller answered first, and took the opportunity to address the wolf management issue.
“Our balancing act here is that we keep Montana managing the wolves and we don’t let them go under 150 wolves or 10 breeding pairs, because once that happens they go back on the endangered species list and then we lose control over them. We all know that producers are losing calves, they’re also losing weight on these animals. So if we can deal with the wolves, then we can help agriculture along,” she said.
Turner cautioned against exterminating the animals as a means of population control
“I think we have to guard against the temptation to just go out there and start slaughtering wolves everywhere they are. I think we need to study pack behavior, find out which are the culpable ones and work on those,” he said.
Barrett echoed Millers concerns on the importance of the wolf management and its impact on the local ranching economy.
“Large predators, especially in Madison County where they are getting pounded by grizzly bears that are still endangered, so they cant set traps for wolves and they’re still getting pounded by wolves. This county is taking a terrible beating due to large predators, and we need predator control and that’s also for public health, safety and welfare and the tax base of your county,” she said.
Barrett also said she would support the agriculture industry by fighting against the business equipment tax.
““I believe one thing that would help agriculture is doing away with the business equipment tax. Other states don’t have this. Montana’s business equipment tax is smaller than it used to be. We were supposed to meet a certain trigger and threshold and the business equipment tax would go away. We still have it,” she said.
“Compare this to Wyoming. Wyoming has a sales tax, that’s true, and you pay it once. You pay a sales tax and you’re done. In Montana each year you pay a business equipment tax and that keeps a lot of businesses out of here, and that also harms agriculture,” Barrett said.
Shaw addressed the wolf issue, expressing concern that the issue has become out of control.
“My grandfathers, and some of yours probably, fought wolves for 40 years. They never did get rid of all of them. We could start hunting wolves tomorrow morning, and for as wary and as cagy as they are, none of us are ever going to see that number come down to 10 breeding pairs or 150 wolves. They’re a huge issue,” he said. “Believe it or not, our economy here still revolves around the old black cow, and we want to keep it that way.”
Shaw expanded on other important aspects of the agriculture industry in Montana.
“One thing I really think needs to keep happening is our experiment farms and experiments with different grains and how we get more yields and the different fertilizers and so on and so forth,” he said.
“Water is going to be a huge issue,” Shaw continued. “How are we going to conserve water for agriculture? There are some tributaries that possibly we could put some smaller reservoirs on to hold water, because right now our weather conditions are like they were in 1934.”
Lepinsky admitted he needed more information on many agricultural issues.
“I’m not a rancher, and I’m not aware of a lot of issues of ranching, so I’m going to need all of you to educate me if you choose to elect me.”
The discussion moved back to the Madison County Commission District 1 candidates with a question about spacing in the county courthouse and county jail.
“I think what we’re doing with Gallatin County taking the prisoners there works very well,” Yecny said.
Schulz proceeded to give some background on the controversy surrounding space needs in the courthouse.
“We’re still obligated to address space for our courts, access to our courthouse and space for our administrative offices. And many of you have sat in meetings throughout the county or been made aware of through the paper that is being pursued,” he said.
“Personally, I think the jail should be closed and just transition everybody immediately over there. We’d reduce a couple positions, we’d have to have a couple of people act as drivers to go back over there, keep them on call but not have them on active salary and use that as an alternative.”
The next question asked the House and Senate district candidates if they supported the expansion of Medicare programs in Montana, noting that the Affordable Healthcare Act would expand Medicare and offer Medicare assistance for 50,000 people in the state.
Shaw replied first, saying that he did not support the Affordable Healthcare Act proposed by President Obama.
“We have a nursing home in Ennis and a hospital, which are really critical care facilities, okay? We have the same in Sheridan, we have the same in Dillon. Those facilities, most of their money comes from Medicare. If we lose our Medicare, the way it is now, what happens to those facilities?” he asked.
“If we lose our Medicare, our hospitals and things are going to be in serious trouble,” he said.
Miller admitted she needed more information on the issue.
“I agree with Medicare. I agree that at no expense do we lose it, and if part of the Affordable Healthcare Act expands that program for our seniors who have worked their whole lives than I’m all for it. But at this point I don’t know enough to judge it,” she said. “At the state level itself, which is the position that I am running for, I will only look at how it benefits our seniors and I can do nothing about the federal level.”
Lepinsky replied with his own views on the healthcare issue.
“The Affordable Healthcare Act. Is it flawed? Yes its flawed. But it’s a starting point and its something we can build off of,” he said.
“I am for the Affordable Healthcare Act. I am not for the voucher system proposed by the Republican vice presidential candidate. I think it will break Medicare. As far as it applies to state healthcare, every bill that I’m going to be looking at if I’m elected I will apply the same litmus test. Will it make our lives better? If it does, then I’ll vote for it. If it doesn’t, I’ll oppose it. I realize it may not be that simple, but that’s a starting point for me,” Lepinsky said.
Barrett said she opposed the Affordable Healthcare Act.
“No one has read the bill, but we’re finding out it is terrible,” she said. “These are facts from the Montana Healthcare Association, these are power points to legislators. Today, Medicare and Medicaid already reimburse providers less than their cost for treating beneficiaries. The Affordable Healthcare Act will reduce Medicare and Medicaid payments to the Montana hospitals by $390 million over 10 years. It also reduces Medicare payments to nursing facilities and home healthcare agencies.”
The election for House District 71, Senate District 36 and Madison County Commission District 1 is scheduled for Tuesday, November 6. For more information contact the Madison County elections office at 843-4270.