Opponents differ on every issue BIGFORK - When longtime conservative lawmaker Bob Keenan first heard that he had a fellow Republican running to the right of him in Senate District 38 race, his first thought was, ''Good Lord, there's not much oxygen way out there.''
But political newcomer John Stokes is convinced he can win by sweeping to the far right of the field, out-conserving conservatives.
Where Keenan wants to rein in taxes, Stokes wants to abolish them. Where Keenan wants to find new ways to fund universities, Stokes wants to sell them. Where Keenan wants to relieve prison overcrowding through use of high-tech monitoring equipment, Stokes wants to send 30 percent of the prison population to the military.
Where Keenan wants to find ways to fund and enhance public education, Stokes wants to yank computers out of the classroom. Where Keenan wants to promote a ''workable'' mental health managed care plan, Stokes hopes to change ''innocent by reason of insanity to guilty and insane.''
''People are looking for ideas,'' Stokes said, ''and I've got them.'
And Keenan, for one, enjoys Stokes' ideas.
''The more people understand his agenda, the more support I get,'' Keenan said. ''His campaign literature is the best advertising I can get.''
Keenan, who represented Bigfork-area residents for two terms in the Montana House, is running with what he calls ''a reputation as an experienced and effective fiscal conservative.''
''People know that when I speak out,'' he said, ''it's not partisan rhetoric. It's based on research. I love numbers. I do my homework and everybody knows it.''
If elected to the Senate, Keenan's homework topics will range from school funding to septic systems.
He is committed to making the federal government live up to its end of the educational bargain, he said, especially in regard to special education needs. In 1975, he said, a federal act mandated how public schools would accommodate the needs of children requiring special education.
With the mandate came a promise for 40 percent of the funding. Montana, however, has never seen more than 8 percent from the federal coffers, he said.
''The federal government has held our feet to the fire and has never lived up to its end of the deal,'' he said. ''As a result, school resources are declining. It's time they gave us the funding or gave us control over the programs.''
Keenan also would like to see the state provide leadership in creating standardized competency testing for students. Such testing, he said, would improve scholastic performance and keep kids from falling through the cracks.
Stokes, however, sees no role for the state at the public-school level.
''There's no need for that kind of testing,'' he said. ''I don't trust the state. I trust my local school board a lot more.''
Stokes' education platform includes barring discussion of homosexuality in the classroom, and teaching creationism as a theory of the origin of the universe. His education position also includes selling off the university system, using proceeds to offer low-interest college loans for Montana's youth.
''If we have to close all the universities in the state, so be it,'' he said. ''It will get the universities out of the continual welfare trough.'
Although that's not the type of ''welfare reform'' Keenan endorses, he does focus on other types. Keenan worries that recent welfare reform has forced young mothers out of the home and into the work force, leaving children at home alone.
''Welfare reform is still an experiment,'' he said. ''It is solving some problems, but it's creating other problems, like child care.''
He believes some of the money saved by reducing welfare caseloads can be used to provide child care for some working moms.
He would also establish medical savings accounts for Medicaid patients, enabling them to manage their own money. The result, he said, would encourage individual responsibility by giving people a personal incentive to spend government money wisely.
Stokes, however, is much more wary of Medicare and Medicaid, especially as the programs apply to the elderly.
''Why should everybody in the state pay for your medical bills just because you're old?'' he asked. ''The elderly are asking this guy in the trailer house to pay their bills. It's no good.
''Where is it written in our Constitution that when you reach a certain age you get your bills paid and get to keep all your money?''
One issue in which both candidates agree is the notion that the state's tax code is less than perfect, although they have very different approaches to reforming it.
Keenan would like to make coal-tax money available to upgrade antiquated septic systems, to help protect the state's ground and surface water. He also would revamp the capital-gains tax to put more money in people's pockets.
Stokes, however, hopes to repeal all real-estate taxes. He also would eliminate all corporate taxes, plus taxes on property and businesses. He believes the resulting ''tax haven'' would attract major companies like IBM and Microsoft, and would provide thousands of jobs.
''No taxes brings in business,'' he said. ''Business brings in jobs. Jobs mean income and an income tax on wages will pay Montana's bills.''
Stokes wants to make fundamental changes in the fabric of how Montana does business. One involves working with the federal government to amend the enabling act that created the state of Montana.
A newly formed Montana would emerge, he said, with all federal lands transferred to the state. That, he said, would allow timber harvest to continue unfettered by a ''wacky'' Forest Service.
His new Montana would also make ''all Montanans equal, regardless of whether they live on a reservation or not.''
Stokes believes the state's Indian reservations have created two classes of citizens, with differing laws and jurisdictions, and he would like to do away with tribal sovereignty.
''Those reservations were originally prisoner of war camps,'' he said. ''Their time has come. We've got to drop this hyphenated America nonsense.''
Besides eliminating the reservations, Stokes said, he also would advocate elimination of the Endangered Species Act, 'with a meat-ax, if necessary.'
''I can do this,'' Stokes said. ''I have the ability to get people excited.''
Keenan, however, is not very excited about many of Stokes' proposals. Instead, he said, he is sticking to his commitment to work toward a ''balanced, fair, fiscally responsible government.''
''There are problems in Montana,'' he said. ''But I'm down there in Helena trying to deal with those issues. Step-by-step. Without a meat-ax.''