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Candidate says plan capitalizes on state's well-educated work force and quality education system

HELENA - With Montana trapped in the economic cellar in national ratings, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark O'Keefe on Thursday unveiled his 36-point, "Rebuild Montana" economic development plan aimed at creating clean, good-paying jobs.

O'Keefe cited just-released ratings from Governing magazine's Local Source Book that shows Montana ranked 49th among the 50 states in high-tech jobs, 48th in gross state product per capita and 47th both in percentage change in personal income from 1995-98 and per capita personal income.

"Friends, it is time we do better," O'Keefe told 30 people at the Helena College of Technology. "Montana needs a leader. Montana needs someone who can take this state in a different direction."

He called his plan a comprehensive program that capitalizes on the state's well-educated work force and quality education system to help retain and attract good-paying jobs and targets economic development by boosting agriculture, technology and tourism sectors.

It lists seven goals, with a number of action items under each one. Some proposals he has released previously, such as calling for raising the state's share of education funding from 61 to 70 percent, and boosting the accommodations or bed tax from 4 to 5 percent and using the increase to help restore and repair tourism sites. He also called for simplifying the state's income tax system to a single-page form and reducing rates.

"Montana needs strong leadership to create good jobs and to boost our economy," he said. "Our future lies in retaining existing businesses, helping them grow and in attracting clean, good-paying jobs to our communities. Montana must build a 21st century high-tech industry, continue promotion of tourism and help its agricultural sector become more profitable."

Some of the ideas would take legislation. O'Keefe wasn't sure what the price tag would be, but described it as "a minimum-cost plan." He added, "We were very careful not to create a lot of new government programs."

O'Keefe, Montana's state auditor and one of three Democrats running for governor, said Montana can succeed in the new economy. The digital delivery of products and information broadens options for business location, he said, and Montana "is still the last best place." He believes with targeted investments, Montana can attract and cultivate clean and good-paying jobs.

First, however, he said it will take leadership, particularly from the governor. If elected, O'Keefe pledged to appoint a chief technology officer in his office to help coordinate technology efforts between the state and private businesses.

He also called for Montana to provide matching funds and tax credits to speed up improvements in the telecommunications industry.

The plan also calls for state government to help fight poverty and unemployment on the seven Indian reservations in the state. O'Keefe said he wants to provide opportunities and jobs on reservations by cutting unemployment and poverty and helping tribes and tribal business-information centers identify and address potential economic development projects.

Other Democrats running for governor are Attorney General Joe Mazurek and Secretary of State Mike Cooney.

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