There are any number of reasons why the 2007 regular Legislative session, hobbled by partisanship and incapable of compromising enough to craft a state budget, adjourned with its work left undone. But for Craig Witte, the Republican representing Kalispell’s House District 8, the bitter tone was set before the 2007 session, when Glasgow Sen. Sam Kitzenberg switched from the Republican Party to Democrat, after being offered a state job by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and handed a 26-24 senate majority to Democrats.
“The Legislature was purchased by the executive branch with our tax dollars,” Witte, now running for his second term, said. “That wasn’t honorable; that started it straight up.”
In the session that followed, GOP leadership appointed Witte to serve on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he said, because he was a good conservative whose vote could be trusted: “There’s a lot of people who talk about being conservative but you can’t count on their vote,” Witte said. “When it comes time to pushing the button, they get colorblind.”
While most of the key battleground legislative contests in the Flathead are between two newcomers, Witte, 48, now finds himself the only incumbent forced to defend his seat in a tight race for a district encompassing downtown Kalispell that historically swings from one side of the aisle to the other in its representation. In 2006, Witte won by just 37 votes, 1,590 to 1,553.
Democrat Cheryl Steenson, a 28-year-old Flathead native and English teacher at Glacier High School, has mounted a strong challenge to Witte, betting that a moderate approach will serve Kalispell more effectively than Witte’s conservatism.
“I honestly don’t believe that it is a fair representation of the district,” Steenson said. “This district could be represented incredibly well by a moderate Democrat or a moderate Republican.”
“There is a huge piece of common ground and that is where the message of my campaign really resonates,” she added.
With a recession, or worse, looming in the national economy, a big focus in the HD8 race is taxes. In the upcoming session, Witte’s main goal is to introduce a bill slashing Montana’s income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 3.9 percent. He introduced an identical bill in 2007 that died in committee, after the approximately $325 million it would cost the state annually was deemed unsustainable.
“My point to that is, it will cost the taxpayers of this state $325 million not to do it,” Witte said. “If you allow taxpayers to bring home more of their paycheck, it’s an immediate infusion into the economy.”
Witte is the owner of the Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, and like most Republicans, he has voted to decrease the business equipment tax. He also opposes any bills that might introduce or allow communities to vote on a local option sales tax, a measure favored by many members of the Kalispell City Council.
“You can’t compromise wrong,” Witte said of the local option tax. “If something’s wrong, you can’t make it less wrong.”
In the upcoming session, Witte hopes to pass a bill allowing a state vote to introduce an “acquisition value” property tax pay system. He also wants to pass a measure requiring state lawmakers to live in the districts they represent.
Witte said he supports policies that would help Montana become a tax refuge, drawing retirees from around the country: “We want them to recognize their income in Montana and if we can have an attractive tax rate we can collect less from more people and end up with more.”
Steenson also opposes any new taxes, but feels tax relief has to be more targeted than the reduction in property tax rates Republicans sought in the last session, which she believes would have disproportionately benefited wealthy second homeowners. She praised the $400 tax rebates that came out of the last Legislature.
“Yes, money has to come back to the people,” she said, “but doing some sort of blanket tax break is not going to meet the needs of the majority of people in the state.”
Steenson is also wary of a local option sales tax, which she said could have a negative effect on the incomes of constituents in Kalispell. But she didn’t rule it out, calling it an issue she would have to study further.
“I would not be likely to support any types of new tax, especially something that would disproportionately affect the working- and middle-class,” Steenson said.
Steenson’s father owns a tree farm in Bigfork and her Republican grandfather, also her campaign treasurer, ran a trucking business in Evergreen, so she said she has seen the effect of the state’s business equipment tax, and would support raising the exemption from $60,000 to $200,000.
With a state surplus of nearly $800 million projected for the next two years, Steenson sees the opportunity to provide tax relief as well as fund social programs, like those that assist people with special needs in joining the workforce, or tax breaks for assisted-living facilities.
“(The surplus) gives us a safety net so we don’t have to raise taxes in this Legislature,” she said, adding that it “allows us to fund some of these places and people who get looked over.”
She favors increasing eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), measures opposed by Witte in the last session.
The race for House District 8 has, thus far, been relatively free of character attacks, and both candidates are focused more on fiscal issues than social ones – making clear they both understand that when Kalispell residents go to the polls Nov. 4, they will be voting with their pocketbooks in mind.
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