BUTTE – Gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Bullock and Rick Hill clashed Thursday night over who would do a better job developing Montana’s natural resources and bolstering education, sharpening their tone in their second debate of the campaign season.
“I am a strong advocate for natural resource development in Montana, and the reason I am is that we are second to last in this country in terms of what we earn in salaries and wages,” Hill told an overflow crowd at the Montana Tech auditorium in Butte. “There is no reason, with all the wealth we have in this state, that we’re next to last in take-home pay.”
Bullock, Montana’s Democratic attorney general, said he supports coal, oil and gas development, and has voted for coal leases on the state Land Board. But he said natural resources shouldn’t be the only economic driver for Montana – and that the state shouldn’t give its resources away without preserving air, water and soil quality.
“We gather on what was the ‘richest hill on earth,’ ” he said in a reference to Butte’s mining history. “But we need to remember some of our lessons. ... I’m going to help build our economy, but I want it done on our terms.”
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Bullock also took after Hill’s plans for education in the state, saying they would “defund, devalue and dismantle” schools.
Hill, a Republican and former congressman for Montana, acknowledged that his plan to shift natural resource taxes to schools, while lowering property taxes, would not result in more money for schools.
But he said Bullock’s swipe at the plan and his other plans for education reform are off the mark.
“Only someone who’s spent their lifetime in government would say that a $200 million increase in (natural resource taxes) is a cut in school funding,” Hill said.
Bullock and Hill are locked in a tight race to become Montana’s next governor as they battle to succeed Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who can’t run again because of term limits. A poll by Lee Newspapers of Montana last week showed the contest as a statistical dead heat, with 44 percent of those surveyed supporting Bullock and 43 percent for Hill. Libertarian Ron Vandevender also is in the race.
Tuesday night’s debate was the second of seven scheduled between Hill and Bullock. They fielded questions from a panel of journalists and also asked each other a question.
Hill used his question to attack Bullock’s record on coal development, asking why Bullock failed to join 24 state attorneys general from coal-producing states this year when they challenged new Environmental Protection Agency rules Hill said would harm coal-fired power plants.
Bullock said only that he supports coal development, and that he has “fought against the government, and I’ve went against the government a few times.”
On schools, Bullock said “the math doesn’t add up” on Hill’s state budgeting and tax plans, which would “blow through the overall (state) surplus without even talking about putting freezes on (college) tuition.”
However, when asked for details on his plans to finance public schools and education, Bullock said that once the election is over, he’d know better the size of Montana’s budget surplus and how much money might be available for schools.
Bullock also said Hill wants to “privatize” schools, referring to Hill’s support of charter schools and tax credits for foundations that would offer scholarships for kids to go to private schools.
Hill said charter schools can offer alternatives for students who might want better skills to find a job, and that it’s time to give schools more “flexibility” to focus on the success of students, rather than focus on how much money is being spent on them.
About 20 percent of Montana students aren’t graduating from high school and 30 percent of high school graduates in Montana need remedial reading and math classes once they get to college, he said.
“Steve may think that that’s OK,” Hill said. “I don’t think that’s OK.“
The candidates also fielded several questions about fish-and-game issues.
Hill said the state can improve opportunities for hunters and anglers by rebuilding better relationships with landowners, who can allow hunting on their land, and better managing predators, which are killing off big game.
Bullock said the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks needs to decrease its deficits, but that Montana needs to listen to its professional wildlife managers. He said as governor, he’d stand strongly behind Montana’s stream access law and work to make sure Montanans have more access to hunting.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at email@example.com.