Candidates' approaches vary
KALISPELL - The race is in full swing in the rural farmland east of Kalispell, with two Republicans vying for the Senate District 42 party endorsement in the June primary.
Both candidates are committed to reducing the size of government, but they approach the task from two very different directions.
Cal Sweet, who already has had a hand in the legislative process through his association with Sen. John Harp, has seen his ideas put to work in bills introduced by Harp. He believes any lasting reform to the political process will require a hand-in-hand cooperation between lawmakers and the governor's office.
The Legislature can create enabling legislation, he said, but the governor's office must carry the ball, attracting business and jobs within the confines established by courts and lawmakers.
In the past, Sweet said, the approach has been to allow the entrepreneurial spirit to run unfettered and to let the economy shake itself out. The days for such a laissez-faire system, however, are long past, Sweet says.
Montana's economy has been on the decline since the late 1940s and early 1950s, he said, as the booming one-source economy ran into snags. During World War II and the years that followed, he said, Butte supplied a hungry world with copper. But over time, global needs changed, the market shifted, and massive mines opened elsewhere in the world, with places like Chile helping to satisfy what demand was left.
The same thing has happened in timber and agriculture and ranching, Sweet said, and the future holds even more competition, more alternative resources and tighter margins.
"We can't look backward," Sweet said. "We're not ever going to become the resource-based economic force we were because those days are over. New global conditions, the cost of freight and an evolving economy have changed the reality of 40 years ago."
"We must look ahead," he said. "We must tell ourselves, with some sort of conviction, that we will never get back to where we were. We must look to new industries."
The Legislature must work to make regulations and tax codes attractive to businesses, he said, and the governor's office must work to court specific industries. The state will need a formal business plan, he said, aimed at a carefully targeted industry group.
That plan, when combined with tax restructuring, should help generate new economic development.
"I don't begrudge paying my taxes," Sweet said. "Statistically, Montana is about in the middle of the pack with regard to income taxes. But property taxes are another story altogether. With property taxes, Montana is about No. 6 in the nation."
And that has ramifications that go well beyond the inability to draw in new businesses, he said. One of Sweet's greatest concerns is that Montana's ever-aging population is outliving its ability to take care of itself, and senior citizens will more and more often find themselves unable to keep up with the tax bill.
Also, the state, he fears, will find itself unable to keep up with the costs of caring for seniors who have outlived their pensions.
"We have some things we cannot sacrifice," he said, including the elderly. But if Montana is to attempt serious economic development, it cannot do so when encumbered by vast costs for caring for the elderly without a plan to cover those costs. Such a plan, he said, must come during the next session of the Legislature; to wait could spell economic disaster.
To pull together such complicated bills as those needed to reform property taxes, plan for the elderly, develop a business plan and adequately fund education - all while providing some tax relief and scaling down the size of government - will provide expertise, Sweet said. That is why he has changed his mind about term limits.
There was a time when he applauded term limits, he said, but he has come to realize that a green Legislature will not be properly equipped to tackle serious financial issues. Neither will freshmen legislators be able to separate the wheat from the chaff when state employees come to lobby before committees as "experts."
If elected, Sweet hopes to undertake a fiscal analysis of Montanans' income sources and find creative taxing solutions that tap into those who can afford to pay while providing relief for those who can't.
Consolidating government, he said, is more than just downsizing agencies. It includes things such as combining at least some of the functions of rural school districts, giving them the advantage of buying in bulk. Tobacco money could be a bridge between current tax structures and a new system, he said, and could also be used as a stopgap to cover the costs of caring for children and the elderly.
Doing so, he said, would provide a shot of up-front cash, allowing the new system to transition smoothly without any new taxes.
Sweet's Republican opponent, Jerry O'Neil, also hopes to make changes in the way government runs, also hopes to generate new business opportunities, also wants to reduce taxes, but takes a very different approach toward reaching those goals.
"I'm very concerned about the intrusions of government," O'Neil said. "I'm very concerned about how much government we're getting."
O'Neil thinks all Montana taxes are too high, and argues that "government has too much power in the private sector."
One example, he said, is his perception that a state-sponsored lock on competition among attorneys is keeping Montanans from hiring affordable legal help. O'Neil, an independent paralegal, believes people without law degrees should be allowed to take the state bar and become licensed, as those new attorneys would be able to provide cheaper services than their accredited professional brethren.
The fact that the state will not allow such competition, he said, "sounds to me like they're trying to preserve a monopoly."
In fact, by introducing competition throughout government - by doing away with requirements such as a law degree - O'Neil believes government will run more efficiently and at less expense. The savings, he said, can be passed on as tax cuts.
O'Neil likes competition at all levels of government; where current law requires accredited teachers in public schools, O'Neil would open up competition in schools, allowing parents to run the education system through charter schools. Teachers in such an atmosphere, he said, will be willing to work for less because they will not be burdened with the accumulated costs of their own education and they will be more committed to their individual form of teaching.
Competition in the private sector should guide the government in real estate deals as well, he said, and politicians and agencies should get out of the economic development/affordable housing business, relying on the private sector to work things out for itself.
An opponent of zoning, he believes Kalispell city government is using community planning to stop a mall just outside of town to preserve its interests in a mall renovation within the city limits.
O'Neil is a self-described "fan of freedom," and says he would like to join the Legislature in order to help preserve the First and Second amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
"Both," he said, "are under attack from Washington."
But O'Neil's passion - his personal crusade in politics - has long centered on the rights of divorced fathers. He has helped write a joint-custody bill that gives fathers more say in parenting issues, and also backed a bill that made it tougher for the state to take a child from family members for placement in foster care.
"We have to allow people to try," he said. "We can't hinder them with government."
Senate District 42 Republican primary
Occupation: Retired business owner, entrepreneur, electrical engineer
Background: Co-founder of Kalispell Electric; member Montana State Electrical Board for 13 years, chairman for seven years, appointed by Gov. Ted Schwinden, Gov. Stan Stephens and Gov. Marc Racicot; member District 10 School Board seven years, chairman three years; member Flathead County Fair Board three years; vice president Immanuel Lutheran Home; support booster for 4-H, FFA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Kalispell Regional Medical Center ALERT Helicopter.
Occupation: Independent paralegal
Background: Secretary Montana Libertarian Party; member Montana Mediation Association; member Montanans for Property Rights.
Michael Jamison can be reached at his Flathead Valley office, (406) 387-4233, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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