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GOP Governor Candidates Push for Natural Resource Development

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Five of the seven Republican candidates for governor took to the stage in Whitefish to discuss their political platforms as the primary election draws near, and all of them seemed to agree on one point: Montana needs to further develop its natural resources.

Candidates Rick Hill, Neil Livingstone, Jim Lynch, Ken Miller and Corey Stapleton took turns answering questions during the May 2 “Politics at the PAC,” a debate sponsored by the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

Lynch, the former director of the state Department of Transportation, said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has failed to lead in this area. It may be easier to access oil in the Bakken Formation the farther east a drill goes, Lynch said, because North Dakota has better infrastructure in place to deal with the oil boom.

Montana has the money to build roads in eastern Montana, Lynch said: “It’s there; what’s lacking is leadership.”

Stapleton said Schweitzer has appointed “obstructionist” and “environmental” people to key positions and can halt oil and coal production. North Dakota and Wyoming dwarf Montana in these production areas, he said, and it’s not just a matter of policy.

“It’s the appointments of power that really have set back Montana in these last seven years,” Stapleton said.

Other candidates, such as Hill, attacked Montana’s permitting process for these types of projects, which he said takes twice as long as other states. Miller said he’s interested in developing not only oil and coal reserves but also resources in every county, such as the timber in Northwest Montana.

Miller also said he would like to change the state’s constitutional requirement that residents are entitled to a “clean and healthy” environment, because that standard is not defined and is therefore up to judges to decide.

Natural resources were also the answer for many of the candidates when questioned about how public schools should be funded. Instead of using property taxes, they said, the state should use money from resource development.

Livingstone also said a budget surplus created by natural resource development could help with a multitude of problems, including a projected public employee pension deficit of more than $3 billion.

Miller said he would like to see the pension system turn into one with contributions, like a 401k, instead of a benefit. Stapleton said though the looming pension deficit is a problem, if elected, he would deal with it in the second half of his term and would focus on the economy and jobs in the first two years.

The candidates did differ widely when questioned about their perceived weaknesses. When asked about the perception that he has a mixed voting record from his time in Congress and that he has not followed conservative values in his personal life, Hill said he has a high rating with the American Conservative Union for his voting record.

As for his personal life – Hill has acknowledged having an affair during his first marriage – he said he went through a tough divorce and continued to raise his children, and has been married to his current wife for 29 years. The election should be about Montanans and the issues facing them, he said. “This campaign should be about the future of Montana.”

Livingstone was asked about his career working around the globe and on national issues, and whether he would understand the issues facing the state. He responded that he is a third-generation Montanan and can use his global experience to help run his home state.

Lynch was questioned about his authenticity as a Republican, since he ran for state office as a Democrat in 1994 and worked in Schweitzer’s administration. Lynch said he received no support from Democrats when he ran for the state Senate in 1994 because they thought he was a Republican, and he accepted Schweitzer’s invitation to run the transportation department because he wanted to bring his conservative business model to the department.

Miller, when asked about accusations that he has violated campaign rules, said his finances have been scrutinized and came away with a “clean bill of health,” making him a stronger opponent for the general election.

And the moderators asked Stapleton how, if he’s flying so far under the voters’ radar, he expects to be a “blip on the screen” during the election. He replied that he has support on social media from the younger population and women voters, and his campaign has saved money for more advertising in May.

All of the candidates said they would do their best to keep federal intrusions out of Montana’s government and that they hoped to relax taxes they say plague businesses and homeowners.

GOP candidates Bob Fanning and Jim O’Hara were not present.

The primary election is on June 5.