In the final debate between Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock and his Republican challenger Greg Gianforte on Saturday, the rules went by the board at times as some of their exchanges grew testy.
Each candidate for governor sought to accuse his opponent of politically convenient lies, with Bullock painting Gianforte as a businessman who aims to provide breaks for wealthy friends while Gianforte characterized Bullock as career politician who is reckless with the state budget.
But the live televised debate from the KRTV studio in Great Falls opened with a moment of partial agreement over the recent news that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had made lewd comments and described sexually assaulting a woman during a taped 2005 conversation.
“These comments are completely inappropriate and outrageous,” Gianforte said.
“What Mr. Trump said is not appropriate for a dogcatcher, let alone a presidential candidate,” Bullock said.
Both also tried to distance themselves from their party’s nominee.
“I have previously said I would vote for Donald Trump. I reluctantly continue to believe that’s the right of course of action,” Gianforte said, listing concerns he had with Hillary Clinton’s policies. “I wish I had a different choice but this is the choice we’re left with.”
Bullock said he disagreed with Clinton on issues such as the Second Amendment and coal policy.
“Whoever gets elected governor or president, that the end of the day, my job is the same: to make sure they understand Montana’s values, Montana’s interests and Montana’s needs,” he said, noting he had opposed emission reduction requirements proposed for the state under the Clean Power Plan and filed suit as former attorney general against efforts to implement a national REAL ID.
With that, Gianforte shifted the debate back to a common thread in his campaign attacks on Bullock.
“I also believe we need a state administration that will stand up to Washington,” he said. “And yet ... the No. 1 issue I’ve heard is that our state administration is not standing up to federal overreach.”
He later argued Bullock had not done enough to fight federal policies that contributed to a loss of jobs in coal and timber industries. He also noted Bullock’s campaign received contributions from “the group that sued to shut down Colstrip,” referencing a suit filed by the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club, and “voted against the Powder River Basin lease.”
Bullock fired back that his campaign has received contributions from “7,500 Montanans” including “coal company CEOs.”
“I do have a plan to take our state forward and it does include coal,” he said.
Earlier this year, he released an "Energy Blueprint" that suggested the state do more to diversify its natural resource economy with further investments in wind and solar energy. Bullock also has sat down federal officials who presented options for upgrading the technology at the Colstrip plan to keep it viable for years more even with stricter emission standards, although those proposals require securing billions of dollars in funding largely through federal loans.
Bullock did not address the comments about his vote as a member of the Montana Land Board. In 2010, he was one of two officials to vote against leasing public mineral rights in the Powder River Basin, often referred to as the Otter Creek tract, to Arch Coal for $86 million. He said at the time that the price was simply too low.
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Gianforte has repeatedly said one of the biggest challenges to developing the state’s natural resources is simply bureaucratic.
“We’ve seen environmental extremists appointed to various boards across the state and at the (Department of Environmental Quality) where some organizations have waited almost two decades to get a permit that would’ve created jobs here in the state,” Gianforte said, again referencing the Otter Creek tract that was never developed in part because it was still seeking final permits but ultimately died when the project no longer was profitable as coal prices dropped and the company filed for bankruptcy.
The most heated moments of the debate came after the candidates were asked about one of the longest-running campaign attacks: an accusation by Bullock that Gianforte blocked public access to an easement on his property along the East Gallatin River and sued the state to get rid of it altogether.
“Here’s the lawsuit,” Bullock said as he unfolded a printed copy of a lawsuit filed by the Gianforte-owned East Gallatin LLC in 2009 against Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He read a portion of it then leaned to his left as he tried to hand it to Gianforte.
“I stand by my statement. Access was never blocked,” Gianforte said, characterizing the incident as an example of poor state leadership that led to simple matter being drawn out for months.
As the State Bureau has previously reported, the suit sought to remove an easement that provided public access along the East Gallatin River, arguing that users were damaging adjacent land, the original 1993 agreement by a previous owner was invalid and that the public had sufficient access via two other nearby sites. Records show the complaint was filed to create a foothold for a case, but the papers were never served to the agency. Gianforte has said the filing was just to get the agency’s attention after “waiting 14 months.”
The dispute was resolved after a department visit to the site in July 2009 led to trail and fence upgrades that did a better job keeping users off the rest of the Gianforte property and the agency updated records on the easement boundaries, according to state documents and emails.
As moderators tried to move the debate to the next question, Gianforte dinged Bullock for bringing the copy of the lawsuit into the studio.
“I just want to note the governor violated the rules of the debate,” he said.
“I just want to note Greg Gianforte sued all of Montana,” Bullock retorted.
Moderators also asked Gianforte whether he would support tougher restrictions on abortions or work to keep federal money for Planned Parenthood out of the state. He declined to answer beyond noting he is pro-life.
“I don’t have any particular plans,” he said. “I’m running because we need more high-wage jobs and that’s my focus.”
Bullock reaffirmed his support for a woman’s right “to make health care decisions by themselves.”
The candidates also discussed figures showing that some state revenues have declined while others have grown more slowly than in recent years. By next summer, the state’s cash balance, which had been about $400 million in 2015, is projected to drop to $119 million.
Bullock said his good fiscal management means “Montana is still in the black” while neighbors like North Dakota and Wyoming have had to call special sessions to make steep cuts. He acknowledged, however, there will be some “hard-fought” decisions as the budget works through the 2017 Legislature.
Gianforte called the declining revenues proof of poor fiscal management. He noted that the state’s general fund spending had grown $800 million since Bullock was elected. The state spends about $6.2 billion annually across all funding sources.