Senate District 2: Whitefish Candidates Talk Schools and Jobs

By Beacon Staff

Ryan Zinke-R

Many of Montana’s brightest young minds leave the state for college or, if they do stay, they often look to better-paying job markets in other states after graduation. To Senate District 2 candidates Ryan Zinke and Brittany MacLean, this is one of the most pressing concerns facing the state today.

If elected, both hope to help reverse this trend. While their proposed solutions often share common ground, each has a distinct vision of the appropriate process to reach those solutions. They are vying for the seat currently held by Democrat Dan Weinberg.

Brittany MacLean-D

Zinke, a Republican, is a business consultant and a former Navy SEAL commander from Whitefish. He said the heart of Montana’s job market is small business. In the Flathead, he said small businesses provide 70 percent of jobs. But with regulations like the business equipment tax, he said Montana isn’t always the most conducive environment for Main Street.

If elected, Zinke said he will fight to eliminate the equipment tax for small businesses, as well as push to reconsider the state’s workers compensation program in an effort to boost wages and encourage job growth. Zinke said Montana’s workers compensation rates are among the highest in the nation but toward the bottom in terms of benefits.

“Working families need to be championed,” he said.

MacLean, running as a Democrat, is a grant writer and a single mother of four from Whitefish. She said she would also like to eliminate the equipment tax for small and medium businesses. Also, she believes a large job market will open up once the state begins increasing alternative energy development. She points to wind, biodiesel and ethanol as avenues to “create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil.”

“I think it’s a high priority,” MacLean said. “That’s one of the most important things that we need to be looking at now and I think Montana has a unique position to be looking at that area.”

Both candidates believe that solving job and wage issues starts with education. Zinke proposes incentives at the higher education level, including offering college loans with debt forgiveness. At the lower levels of education, Zinke said teachers must be paid more. Referring to the ongoing litigation between school districts and the state, he said “we need to stop suing ourselves over education.”

“We need to reverse the trend,” Zinke said.

Along with job growth, MacLean believes that focusing on alternative energy sources is also a way to promote the state’s universities. If colleges emphasize training for fields in alternative energy, such as wind and biodiesel, MacLean believes Montana can direct its young minds to in-state higher education and, subsequently, to in-state jobs based on energy development. Like Zinke, she believes teachers aren’t paid enough in Montana, which is ranked annually among the lowest in teaching wages in the nation.

Zinke describes himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” who stresses the importance of conservation and alternative energy development working alongside traditional strongholds like sustained yield logging. The state needs to create revenue from resources such as clean coal and wind, and then keep the money in Montana, he said. That money will stimulate economic development in communities, he said, instead of municipalities relying on taxes, such as the local option sales tax, to pay for improvements.

“We live in a great spot,” Zinke said. “What we have to do is leverage our location to our advantage.”

MacLean said “across the board” she doesn’t favor increased taxes. Taxpayers already have enough on their plates, she said. A strong proponent of health care reform, MacLean said there are ways to improve the state’s health system without raising taxes. One example, she said, is the Healthy Montana Kids Plan initiative, or I-155, which will be on the ballot in November. The initiative is aimed at decreasing Montana’s high number of children without health insurance.

“For children, it begins with insurance,” MacLean said. “Children being covered with health insurance means that they are healthy in many areas of their lives.”

As for property taxes, MacLean said the state needs to find a better way to fund education than placing the burden on property owners. She believes property taxes should be lowered. Zinke believes the same.

“We need to de-link property taxes and education,” Zinke said. “If you tie them together, you can’t lower property taxes. Have enough courage to fund education out of the general fund.”

Zinke was born in Whitefish. After graduating from Whitefish High School, he spent 23 years in active duty for the Navy SEALs, including a stint as a special operations commander in Iraq. In 2006, he was awarded two bronze medals by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. He holds a master’s degree in finance and a master’s of science in global leadership. His military career, he said, has instilled in him a strong set of leadership skills and confidence.

“I can’t be intimidated and I will do what’s right for Montana,” Zinke said. “We need strong leadership in the middle to get it back on track.”

MacLean was born in Missoula. She moved to Whitefish when she was young and graduated from Whitefish High School. After attending the University of Montana, she earned a master’s degree in urban policy in New York. In Alaska, she co-founded the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center. She thanked her own family for helping her run a campaign as a single mom with four children.

“We need to focus on our core,” MacLean said. “Education is that core, families are that core, children are that core.”

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