SIDNEY – Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Daines, debating Democratic rival Amanda Curtis on Tuesday night in the heart of eastern Montana’s oil patch, accused her of helping to kill a $35 million bill to fund public works in Montana communities overwhelmed by oil development.
“Had it not been for my opponent’s vote, we would have had that money,” Daines told a packed house at the Richland County Fairgounds Event Center in Sidney.
Curtis, a state representative from Butte, replied that she voted for “more than $40 million of infrastructure funding for eastern Montana” at the 2013 Legislature and supported establishing an oil-and-gas tax trust fund to pay for public works in oil country – a proposal that ultimately failed.
“It’s insincere to say that I’ve not been for the infrastructure in eastern Montana,” she said.
Daines, Montana’s U.S. representative and a heavy favorite to win the race for Montana’s open Senate seat, also spent much of Tuesday night’s debate repeating familiar campaign themes, bashing President Barack Obama and a federal government he said is out of control and calling for more development of coal, oil and gas.
He called Curtis an ally of environmentalists who want to stop coal development and construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in eastern Montana, saying Montanans don’t want these “radical views.”
About 200 people attended the second and final debate between Curtis and Daines on Tuesday, billed as the Montana’s first U.S. Senate debate held east of Billings.
The Sidney Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, Richland County Farm Bureau and Marks Group Broadcasting sponsored the hourlong debate, which was broadcast on selected radio stations across the state and streamed live on the Internet.
Curtis, who entered the race just two months ago as a decided underdog, answered Daines by saying she supports natural resource development in the state, but that Montanans need to ensure their clean air and water are preserved and that corporate energy firms pay their “fair share” of development costs.
The most recent public poll, released last week, gave Daines a 16-point lead over the little-known Curtis, with 20 percent undecided.
Daines, a former technology firm executive from Bozeman, won election as Montana’s only U.S. representative in 2012 and jumped into the Senate race last year after U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2014.
Daines has raised $6.8 million in campaign funds, while Curtis, a high school math teacher who became a candidate Aug. 16, raised $558,000 in the first six weeks of her campaign. She replaced Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., who withdrew as a candidate Aug. 7 in the wake of revelations that he plagiarized his 2007 master’s degree paper at the U.S. Army War College.
Tuesday night’s debate focused on eastern Montana issues such as oil and coal development and agriculture, with Daines and Curtis exchanging blows over a $35 million oil and gas infrastructure bill that passed the 2013 Legislature but then was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.
Curtis voted for the bill, but an attempt to override Bullock’s veto fell a few votes short. Daines said Curtis was among the Democrats who voted to uphold the governor’s veto.
“The vote that really mattered was the vote to override Bullock’s veto,” he said. “I’m disappointed that the Montana Legislature and my opponent were not willing to override the governor.”
Curtis said she voted for other infrastructure funding that went to eastern Montana, but that she believes oil corporations profiting from the oil and gas boom along the North Dakota-Montana border should pay more to help fund public works in impacted towns.
She said she supported the failed oil and gas tax trust proposal, to produce longer-term revenue to solve the problem, or a proposal to remove an oil and gas “tax holiday” when the price of oil surpasses $60 a barrel and use the extra revenue to fund infrastructure in eastern Montana.
Daines also teed off on two of his favorite targets: The federal government and President Obama.
He lambasted the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal,” which he equated to a war on the middle class because he said it will cost jobs and drive up electricity prices. Developing coal, oil and gas will help create an energy-independent America, he said, and energy development has boomed across the country “all despite Barack Obama.”
“I will stand with the people of Montana, not Barack Obama,” he said.
On a question regarding federal regulation of electronic cigarettes and health policy, Daines said the federal government is “taking over more of our lives” and should leave more decisions to the states. He also said the 2010 federal health care overhaul should be repealed.
Curtis responded by saying that corporations are “running the show,” and that the people in America are the government and should have more of a voice. She also defended the health-care overhaul – the Affordable Care Act – saying it has provided new access to health insurance for 30,000 Montanans and eliminated pre-existing health conditions as a factor in acquiring health insurance.