Beacon Questionnaire: Flathead County House Races

By Beacon Staff

Montana Legislative candidates were asked the following questions:

1. In the 2009 session would you support legislation allowing Montana cities to vote on a local option sales tax? If not, is there some other funding mechanism you would support to help cash-strapped municipalities?
2. What type of regulatory changes, if any, do you think the Legislature must enact regarding the permitting of gravel pits?
3. What issue in the 2009 Legislature will be most important to you and how will you work on it?
4. Name one issue where you think your party doesn’t always get it right, and why. What would you do about it in the session?


Name: Mike Jopek (incumbent)
Age: 44
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Farmer, co-owner Purple Frog
Hometown: Whitefish
Years in Valley: 20

1. City of Whitefish residents overwhelmingly renewed the local tourist tax to have visitors help pay for roads, parks and lower property taxes. This year, Whitefish will rebate $433,000 of the tourist tax to property taxpayers. City of Whitefish roads, parks and bikeways are in decent shape. I am committed to growing our economy and keeping Montana on track.

2. In 2005, I sponsored the law and gave back the freedom for local county commissioners to regulate gravel extraction operations in residential areas. Some counties use this tool well while others sit and watch. In 2007, I sponsored a couple more bills relating to gravel pits and homes. And I will continue to look for collaborative solutions: safety, health, property investment and jobs first.

3. I will work to grow our economy and lower property taxes and lower fuel costs for Montanans, senior citizens and local business owners. Both in the 2005 and 2007 sessions, I worked diligently to conserve the state public lands around Whitefish for traditional use. We made great progress in preserving public lands.

4. Party politics are overrated. Solutions happen when folks are not afraid to talk: to offer a smile, shake a hand and trust people. Democrats, with the help of business leaders have delivered fiscal discipline with surpluses, 60,000 new jobs, record energy production, enormous state funding of education, all-day kindergarten, capped student tuitions and lowered taxes for Montana businesses and homeowners with historic relief. We have enabled four Montana wind farms, powering hundreds of thousands of homes and are building turbines right here in our state. We have more work ahead in investing in the Flathead and Montana with a common sense, pro-small business plan. I’ll stand with local businesses to grow our economy.

Name: John Fuller
Age: 62
Party: Republican
Occupation: High school teacher
Years in Valley: 13

1. The local option sales tax has been very useful and successful for the Whitefish community. It has provided a wide variety of services that otherwise would not have been available. However, in general, most Montanans are opposed to sales taxes, and in principle, I am opposed to any increase in taxes. Consequently, expanding the local option sales tax would not be a concept I would support without considerable data to prove its absolute necessity.

2. The Legislature must streamline the permit evaluation and granting process for gravel pit operation. Gravel is a vital commodity to the economic growth and development of the Flathead Valley. Corresponding with the streamlining of the permit process must be clear guidelines for protecting the rights of all affected.

3. The most important two issues in my view will be energy independence and school funding.

4. The Republican Party always get it right on taxes in theory. Lowering taxes increases the circular flow of income in the entire economy and consequently results in more money in the hands of everyone, which leads to more revenue in the government’s treasury. Republicans have not always fought hard enough to ensure that taxes are kept as low as possible. I will fight hard to keep our taxes as low as possible.


Name: Keith Regier
Age: 57
Party: Republican
Occupation: retired teacher/ business owner (Stillwater Sod)
Hometown: Kalispell
Years in the valley: 33

1. Montanans have expressed their dislike for a sales tax in the past. I would not support a local option sales tax. Montana has a wealth of natural resources that can be responsibly developed. Coal, oil, natural gas and timber are abundant resources in Montana that can generate revenue for the state, county, city and school budgets. North Dakota and Wyoming have successfully done this. Montana can as well.

2. The state needs to see that the permitting of gravel pits is done in a predictable and timely process.

3. With high-energy costs affecting every Montanan, the responsible development of our state’s natural resources will be a priority with me. Montana has the largest coal reserves in the nation, but it is just sixth in the nation in production. The Eastern Front has a lot of natural gas that can be used instead of purchasing gas from Canada, and our forests can be used for biomass to fuel boilers and other heating systems.

4. I can’t think of any. There may be some individual Republicans that I don’t see eye-to-eye with, but the Montana Republican Platform is right on.

Name: Jake Pannell
Age: 31
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Live music performance and production
Hometown: Dillon
Years in the valley: 3

1. As a rule it is my goal to ensure equality for all citizens of Montana. After conversations with leaders in local governments, I have decided that as long as the local option tax is fair and open to all communities I would support legislation allowing the issue to go to public vote. Any time that the people of this great state are given a direct say in how they are governed, we grow stronger as a state and offer more transparency in government control.

2. While gravel pits are necessary to some industries and employ many in Montana, I am a large supporter of open space buffer zones to maintain the pristine beauty of our state. These areas can be farmland, treed parks and trails, or areas of dense shrubbery that help maintain dust abatement and create the separation of housing and industrial areas. These issues must be worked on for the common good of business and individuals, while at the same time ensuring environmental issues are addressed.

3. If we don’t start ensuring all of us have quality healthcare, especially at a younger age, the lifestyle and economy of our great state will only get worse. This, like many other issues, is where we can, as a state, pave the way to a better future for our entire country and our children’s future.

4. There is one issue that I believe both parties don’t always get it right, and that can be summed up in one word: COMPROMISE. Until we put aside party lines and work together as representatives of our citizens, we will never address all the issues that must be addressed each session to ensure progress and protection for our state. I will bring leadership, integrity and accountability to the Legislature. I will work together with fellow Democrats and Republicans. In the Army I took an oath to defend the Constitution and my home. It is that oath I make again as I serve you in the 2009 Legislature.


Name: Bill Beck (incumbent)
Age: declined to answer
Party: Republican
Occupation: retired
Hometown: Whitefish
Years in the valley: 20

1. It’s up to the residents in their localities. It should be put to the public and let the public decide whether they want it. This is giving more local control to the communities.

2. I sit on the Legislative Audit Committee where we have the audits of all the agencies. There’s some cleaning up that they have to do in the Department of Environmental Quality. It shouldn’t take as long for DEQ to issue a permit; they should be issuing these permits on a timely basis.

3. Taxes. I have taken an oath not to increase taxes or add any new taxes in the next Legislature. As for school funding, what we have to do is get in there and revamp the budgetary process for the school system. All these localities are having to run these levies which just adds to your property taxes. I hope the Legislature can sit down and discuss in detail with the Office of Public Instruction how to accomplish this goal.

4. I think we have to do a better job of working together with each other, not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well. I think we have to be more fair and balanced with each other. The ideologies that drive both parties are obviously different. Will they change? No. But there isn’t any reason that we can’t narrow the gap by coming together on certain issues that affect the citizens of Montana.

Name: Scott Wheeler
Age: 61
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Leadership Consultant, Historian, author
Hometown: West Valley, Kalispell
Years in the valley: 31

1. There is no question that municipalities and counties are having a difficult time funding minimum services. However, we need to look at current taxes such as those on gambling that could be used to help local governments before we think about a sales tax. I favor impact fees to pay for the infrastructure needed to support a growing county.

2. The meeting held at Flathead Valley Community College last month convinced me that we need to properly fund DEQ so it can do its job in dealing with permit requests for gravel pits so as to protect the interests of all parties involved. We also need to respect neighborhood plans. Finally, the neighborhood boards, like the West Valley Advisory Board, should be elected and not appointed.

3. I want to reform school funding so as to use the state oil and gas revenues to pay a greater share of school funding, thus lifting more of the burden from local property taxes. I want to eliminate the business equipment tax and fully fund SCHIP and other health insurance initiatives to help working families afford health insurance.

4. Neither party is always right. The Democratic Party, however, allows greater independence for its elected officials so they can better serve the people of their districts. The Republican Party has moved to the radical right and has ceased to represent the average Montanan.

Name: Timothy R. Martin
Age: 55
Party: Constitution
Occupation: Semi-retired, office manager
Hometown: Kensal, N.D.
Years in the valley: 18

1. Yes. I am inherently opposed to any new taxation, but if a city needs to institute a local option sales tax I believe it would be up to the voting public. I would prefer other options such as events, private grants or other funding means.

2. I believe we have enough legislation and existing laws in place. In my district, we could use a few more gravel pits. The Forest Service pit I use allows me one yard of gravel, that’s barely enough for one of my small washouts let alone the rest of my half-mile access road. It’s the pits. I have to have gravel hauled from Kalispell.

3. Right to Life and runaway state spending. I’m pro-life, so I would sponsor or support legislation that would protect the least among us. Our governor and the Legislature are acting irresponsibly by increasing government spending. In 1991, our state biennial budget was just over $1 billion; by 2001 it was over $2.6 billion dollars. The 2009 biennial budget is expected to be in excess of $4 billion. Many of the state’s programs are funded equally by the federal government. If these federal funds are cut, we are going to be in serious trouble. I propose “Operation Cut Back.” The Legislature must mandate an agency budget cut of 5 percent per year for the next biennium. Any and all excess funds must be returned to the taxpayer.

4. The Constitution Party of Montana IS the right party. I believe we are a party of uncompromised individuals, always trying to follow the best guide and curb our government has: our Constitution. Rick Jore, District 12, representing his constituents and our party was our only public servant thus far and we need more public servants.


Name: Jon Sonju (incumbent)
Age: 32
Party: Republican
Occupation: Business development, Sonju Industrial, Inc.
Hometown: Kalispell
Years in the valley: 27

1. I do not support any new taxes on the taxpayers of the state of Montana. I currently serve as the vice chairman of the House Taxation Committee. This committee votes on the local option sales tax bills. My voting record shows that I do not support the local option sales tax. I have not supported the previous bills because the cities and counties have not presented a bill that everyone can agree upon. In the past, different communities have brought competing bills to the committee that are confusing and last minute with much opposition. A large opponent has been the Montana Taxpayers’ Association. As a lawmaker, I want to point out that some of the opposition issues can be worked out and agreed upon. I would encourage our local governments across Montana to work together to bring a bill to the Legislature that is not confusing and everyone can agree upon.

2. All regulatory changes and permitting for gravel pits should be handled at the local level. I will support all efforts for local control of permitting of gravel pits.

3. The economy is the most important issue facing the state. I will not support any new taxes. If there is a budget surplus then I will support permanent property tax relief. I will also work on legislation to end the business equipment tax, which is currently at 3 percent.

4. As a thirty-something Republican legislator, I think that some voters believe my party is out of touch with younger generations. I have been in Helena for two terms now and can attest that I am trying to build a solid future for our young people by staying fiscally responsible. This session I will support a competitive tax structure for our small businesses to ensure that our graduates can stay in Montana and have good-paying jobs.

Jon Sonju’s opponent, Democratic candidate Shannon Hanson, declined to participate in the Flathead Beacon questionnaire


Name: Edd Blackler
Age: 65
Party: Democrat
Occupation: retired (currently a school bus driver)
Hometown: Bigfork
Years in the valley: 30

1. I will seriously study legislation that would allow citizens to vote on a local option sales tax. Such legislation needs to provide an appropriate tax credit to all Montana citizens subject to this tax, and must not serve as a backdoor means to enact a regressive statewide sales tax.

2. For revenue purposes, gravel pits need to be treated more like other natural resource extraction processes. Counties need to have the authority to set strict operational guidelines that minimize the negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods.

3. I intend to work with fellow legislators to come up with a fair and equitable means of creating revenue, and to prudently disperse those funds. I believe education and human services, management of public land, and development of alternative energy will be the top issues.

4. Democrats have not effectively informed Montanans about the details of the accomplishments they have made in the last two legislative sessions: historic tax cuts, unprecedented funding for education, tuition caps, all-day kindergarten, etc. I will make sure that details of these, and similar accomplishments, are well publicized.

Name: Scott Reichner
Age: 41
Party: Republican
Occupation: Mortgage Broker
Hometown: Carlsbad, Calif.
Years in the valley: 11

1. No I do not support a sales tax. I support the local municipalities raising funds as they need in normal tax mechanisms and by reducing the expenses or reducing the size of government. They can also reduce city payroll through normal attrition.

2. I am not familiar with this issue or what ought to be done.

3. I would be anxious to get to work on energy reform by increasing production of clean coal mines along with development of wind energy. There is no reason we cannot be an energy producing leader and supplier of energy. I would also be in favor of a building fund for our K-12 education infrastructure, which would be paid for by our state land coal production.

4. I think our party needs to work harder at getting any surplus in our state’s budget back to the taxpayers in the form of state income tax relief and property tax relief, and not settling on a one-time, $400-dollar gift.


Name: Mark Blasdel (incumbent)
Age: 33
Party: Republican
Occupation: Owner/manager Vista Linda Restaurant & Catering
Hometown: Somers
Years in the valley: 33

1. No, I would not support the local option sales tax in the upcoming session. One of the best funding mechanisms that we have in the state of Montana is our natural resources. We must take steps to use these resources in an environmentally friendly way to produce the revenue needed to support government without continually coming back to the local property tax payer. I also believe that all government must look within itself to address issues within its current budgets.

2. I believe that the state must adopt predictable, fair and time-sensitive procedures in its permitting process while ensuring the protection of the communities’ health and safety.

3. One of the most important issues facing Flathead County residents will be the upcoming tax reappraisal cycle. This could have dramatic effects on area residents as the state conducts this mandated cycle with increased property taxes. I want to take my knowledge of serving on the House Taxation Committee in 2007 to help mitigate these efforts and protect the taxpayers from increasing taxes and wasteful spending.

4. I can’t name an exact issue, but I feel my party has a problem sometimes explaining or getting across a message about issues and why our plan is better. I plan to continue building relationships with members of the media and continuing to stay in close contact with my constituents to explain why I take stances on different issues during the session.

Name: Carla Augustad
Age: 46
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Agriculture
Years in the valley: 16

1. I do not support this. We already have a tax to capture income from the millions of visitors who come to Montana each year; it is called the bed tax. The bed tax creates a few good marketing jobs in Montana, but businesses are increasingly feeling the need to turn to HB-1 foreign nationals to fill their employment needs because too many local people cannot afford to live in the area when the employment season is so short. It is time to use some of that money to help maintain critical infrastructure.

2. It is the duty of the state to set the standards in regard to public safety, water quality and other environmental concerns, then to see to it that those standards are adhered to. That means fixing the DEQ so that it can function the way it is supposed to without standing in the way of progress.

3. Keeping our public goods and services public. That means that I would have voted for the streamside access bill, and/or done a lot of negotiating with any parties who would prevent it from coming to the floor. Also, there is a current proposal to privatize workman’s comp, a budding public relations effort to privatize public education as well as the eternal effort to get more of our resources into fewer pockets. I remember how disastrous it was to “save money” by privatizing our mental health services.

4. I am a Democrat so I think for myself; the other party is the one that repeats Heritage Foundation lines so often that everybody starts believing they must be true because they heard them so often.