Environmental concerns, consumer protection among issues debated
Juggling the separate missions of monitoring Montana's insurance and securities industry and managing its public lands is the role of the state auditor, and five of its six candidates discussed their qualifications for the job in Missoula on Tuesday.
"With all due respect to the candidates, promoting an auditor's forum isn't the easiest thing in the world," said Jeff Goin, executive director of the Center for Environmental Politics that helped organize the gathering. "People either become scared or start to nod off a bit."
Democrats David Ewer of Helena, John Morrison of Helena, and Barry "Spook" Stang of St. Regis, Republican Bruce Simon of Billings and Natural Law Party candidate Rebecca Scott of Great Falls took questions for an hour and a half at a forum led by KPAX journalist Ian Marquand. Republican Joyce Schmidt of Bozeman did not attend.
They defined what the biggest environmental concerns to state land might be, how the auditor's office should approach the banking industry, kinds of consumer protection roles the office should have, what to do about Internet or telemarketing fraud, whether to sell public lands and changes they might make to the Montana Environmental Policy Act which controls citizens' participation in state land decisions.
Ewer, a legislator and senior bond officer on the state Board of Investments, said development on state lands must comply with local zoning ordinances, and should give long-term protection to water quality and wildlife habitat. He predicted the state's banking industry would resist any attempt by the auditor's office to increase oversight of its securities trading, but added the office needed to increase its consumer protection functions. State school trust land should not be developed for short-term profit if it harms its long-term quality, he said. He also called for more public review of state Land Board actions. He touted his fight against deregulating the Montana Power Co., his support of a woman's right to abortion, and his work on hundreds of local government financing projects, including the bonds that are buying Missoula's new emergency vehicles.
Simon, a legislator and businessman, said the biggest environmental concern on public lands was the spread of noxious weeds. He called for greater cooperation among the state, local government and federal land managers to control weeds. He supported strict enforcement of insurance and securities regulations to stop fraud, but said the office needed to be more encouraging to legitimate industry representatives. The current office makes businesses wait too long to get or renew their licenses, and that should change, he said. Simon opposed selling state lands to private interests, saying private buyers are already locking Montanans out of much of their traditional range. He did not support bringing more consumer protection duties to the auditor's office, saying the present Department of Commerce resources should be strengthened instead. Doing otherwise would politicize the auditor's office, which Simon said he didn't want to do.
Morrison proposed increasing the consumer protection duties in the auditor's office and absorbing the Department of Commerce's role there, which he said was understaffed. He said his status as a practicing lawyer meant he could prosecute fraud cases to raise awareness of rip-off schemes aimed at older Montanans. The Land Board's first objective should be to ensure the long-term protection of public lands, and consider any development proposals in that light. Timber harvesting must be only at sustainable levels, and the state needs to develop more specific definitions of "old growth" timber to protect more of such forests from logging. Morrison opposed sale of public lands, but said he'd consider swaps that might improve public sites while permitting profitable development. If mining is involved on state trust lands, he said the state should require "worst-case scenario" reclamation bonds. He called for greater oversight of privacy and conflict-of-interest violations in the banking industry as it gets more involved in selling investments. Out-of-state Internet businesses should be required to follow the same Montana regulations as the local businesses they compete with, he said.
Scott, owner of a small business, said long-term protection of state trust lands should be weighed against any development proposals, especially how oil or gas exploration might harm wildlife habitat. She said she needed more study on investment selling by banks or changes to the Montana Environmental Policy Act before taking positions on them. Old growth forests don't need better definitions because they're obviously important and needed to learn better stewardship of other forest lands, she said. State trust lands should not be the source of "quick-fix" income for the public school system. She said her lack of experience in politics was a useful background for an office that needed "moral fairness."
Stang, a legislator and grocery store owner, said he thought the Montana Environmental Policy Act worked fine the way it's now written and that public land users should pay reclamation costs up front instead of forcing the taxpayers to pay for failed cleanup efforts. He said he'd stay out of trying to regulate telecommunications or Internet business, because the Public Service Commission and the federal government are better equipped to do so. The auditor's office should have its own experts reviewing land use plans, instead of relying on the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation assessments, which he said have been inaccurate in the past. Strict enforcement of insurance and securities regulation is welcome by the industry, he said, and he would continue that level of oversight. The auditor's office should do more outreach to senior citizens to protect them from fraud before it strikes, he said.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or by e-mail at email@example.com