As the United States appears to be moving toward the return of a $1 trillion annual deficit and growing national debt, the four Republicans seeking their party's nomination to run for the U.S. Senate this fall each have a plan they say will turn that around.
The candidates are Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Billings judge Russ Fagg, state legislator and surgeon Al Olszewski and state Auditor Matt Rosendale.
Whoever wins the primary will run against Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is seeking his third term. The race is expected to be closely watched and hard fought, with money already flowing into the state and advertisements flooding Montanans' televisions and social media feeds.
All four primary candidates strongly support the $1.5 trillion tax bill members of their party passed at the end of last year, pointing to and sharing stories they’ve heard on the campaign trail from people who have seen their paychecks increase. They’ve also all panned the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passed in March.
Both pieces of legislation are cited in the Congressional Budget Office report as contributors to a national debt expected to reach $29 trillion by the end of the decade and deficit increases, something that can be tricky for Republican candidates to navigate this year. But the CBO report also predicts the tax bill will increase economic growth by 0.7 percent and add 1.1 million jobs to the economy over the next 10 years, much better points for campaigns.
Downing said that next steps to create more growth in the economy involve lowering regulations.
"One of the problems with an expansive government is it tries to be all things to all people. That attempt at protecting us takes away our basic freedom to make decisions. We thrive best when allowed to make our own decisions," Downing said.
Fagg said he sees the path to economic prosperity through decreasing regulations, by using a cost-benefit analysis.
He also called out the need to "modernize" the Endangered Species and Equal Access to Justice acts to give business a more reliable regulatory environment. Allow the state’s natural resource economy to thrive would create jobs that keep young people in the state, he said.
"We can manage our forests in a sustainable fashion so we don’t take any more than what’s growing each year and develop those resources to provide jobs and provide lumber for the economy," Fagg said.
Rosendale, along with Downing, said flattening out the tax brackets would also help Montana individuals and businesses keep more of their own money to reinvest and boost the economy instead of serving special interests.
"The tax code is just too big. If you flatten out the tax rates … and you start eliminating the different write-offs that are allowed to take place there, you make it so the special exemptions have gone away, it’s better for business and it’s better for Montana," Rosendale said.
Olszewski said the best way to keep growing the economy is to focus on cutting federal spending.
"We need to reign back on welfare spending," Olszewski said. "It blew up. It ballooned during the Great Recession in 2008 and despite the fact we now have the lowest unemployment rate in the last 40 years, the fact is we have not reigned back in food stamps, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and other issues."
While all candidates called for cutting federal spending, Olszewski focused the most on looking at how much is dedicated to welfare programs.
"What we need to do is, we still need a safety net for our most vulnerable, but it is time for us to refocus and truly make sure the people who are receiving it are truly eligible for those issues," Olszewski said.
Olszewski added that "everything needs to be on the table" to look at for spending reductions, with the caveat that military and national security needs should be adequately funded.
Fagg said the first place he'd look to trim is the U.S. Department of Education, saying he doesn't see the need for such a large federal agency, and control should be placed with local school boards. Cutting defense spending is off limits, Fagg said. But he did propose freezing 2019 spending at 2018 levels, saying that combined with economic growth of 3.5 percent, the budget would balance in three years.
Downing referenced his business background.
"We need to start approaching this as business people rather than as politicians and let’s look at the basics business of this. You cannot just spend money that you don’t have," Downing said. "If you’ve already maxed out all your credit cards, you can’t expect the credit cards to start giving you more." He said the United States needs to first figure out what needs to be fully funded — national security, basic infrastructure — and then figure out what's left for other programs and agencies.
Rosendale said just about every government agency can be reduced if the workforce is made more efficient, adding he's reduced operating costs by 23 percent by cutting total staffing 6 percent at the auditor's office.
"It takes someone who is willing to look line by line at different budget items at different agencies and say, 'This is working, this isn’t working,'" Rosendale said."