In the region’s closest 2010 legislative race, Republican Derek Skees defeated Democrat Will Hammerquist by fewer than 100 votes in Whitefish’s House District 4, ending a run a rare run of Democratic control in the Flathead Valley.
Democrat Mike Jopek had held the seat for three straight terms before opting not to run for a fourth term, setting the stage for the battle between Skees and Hammerquist.
This fall, two political newcomers are squaring off for House District 4, which has been left open because of Skees’ candidacy for state auditor. Skees is trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Auditor Monica Lindeen instead of defending his legislative seat.
Kalispell attorney Tim Baldwin, a Republican, threw his hat into the ring when Rollan Roberts II switched over from House District 4 to run for Senate District 3. Roberts lost a close race to incumbent Republican Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, while Baldwin ran unopposed in his House primary.
Baldwin, 33, now faces Whitefish Democrat Ed Lieser, 69, a retired U.S. Forest Service forester who defeated Tom Muri in the June Democratic primary.
Lieser, who runs his own forestry consulting company, says his background in natural resources, environmental issues and business gives him valuable insight for addressing Montana’s most pressing concerns at the Legislature. He believes resource development and environmental protection needn’t be competing ideologies.
“I take the approach that we can manage our natural resources and that we can do it while still protecting wildlife and water and all kinds of habitat,” he said. “We have to make sure we do it sustainably and protect the integrity of the ecosystems.”
Baldwin, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Flathead Valley Community College’s board of trustees, considers himself a staunch defender of personal liberties and the constitution, while also holding views that make him somewhat of a maverick among state Republicans.
He has been an outspoken supporter of medical marijuana, arguing for consistency in applying legal principles and respecting the will of the people, while also saying he would support the expansion of Medicaid if financially viable. The Legislature will have the option of expanding Medicaid to roughly 50,000 insured residents under the Affordable Care Act and Republican opposition already appears firm.
Baldwin says that his willingness to espouse a range of views is important for an “objective and rational lawmaker reflecting the will of the people,” and he believes it also suits his diverse district of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
“There’s a diverse mix – a wide variety – of people in the district,” Baldwin said. “I want to listen to them and be a voice for them.”
Lieser is intrigued with the idea of a “restoration economy” in which good-paying jobs are produced through environmental restoration projects. He cites the Milltown Dam cleanup as an example. Whitefish’s River Design Group worked on the Milltown project and also works on projects across the West.
He believes the Legislature could play a role in spurring restoration projects, which he says are a “logical win-win” and “an invaluable way to improve our economy while actually restoring our forests and lakes and streams.” In his definition of restoration, Lieser includes timber thinning projects.
“Those kinds of opportunities really provide good-paying jobs for engineers and equipment operators, and they’re going to help our state in terms of our attractiveness to tourists and people who want to start businesses here,” he said.
Both Baldwin and Lieser say property taxes are a foremost concern in their district, with many homeowners afraid they will be priced out of their homes.
Lieser is open to exploring a number of possible property tax remedies, including a “circuit breaker” system based on income level means testing.
Baldwin says natural resource development revenue and tourism dollars, perhaps in the form of user fees, could be used to lighten the tax burden on homeowners. He generally supports a more simplified tax system, including a flat tax on income.
“A lot of people feel overtaxed and they’re upset about it and they want to see something done about it,” Baldwin said.
House District 4 candidates were asked the following five questions:
1. What can the Legislature do to spur economic recovery and job growth?
2. How should the Legislature address the state government worker pension shortfall, which is projected to exceed $3 billion over the next 30 years?
3. The U.S. Supreme Court gave states the choice of whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. What should Montana do and why?
4. Given that the state is projected to have a surplus, what should be the Legislature’s budgetary priorities during the next session?
5. What are the other most pressing issues facing the Legislature and why?
HOUSE DISTRICT 4
Name: Tim Baldwin
Bio: Currently an attorney at Lerner Law Firm in Kalispell; previously an attorney at Baldwin Law Offices in Pensacola, Fla. and Kalispell; assistant state attorney for 1st Judicial Circuit in Florida; bachelor of arts degree in English and political science from University of West Florida; juris doctorate from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University
Years in the valley: 2
Campaign website: www.tim4hd4.com
1. The Legislature can do things like (a) lighten the tax burden, (b) make sure every person supports our state government, (c) ensure our regulations and tax system are simple, effective, and predictable, (d) open our state for tourism and investment, (e) responsibly use our natural resources, (f) develop alternative methods of energy creation, and (g) improve all of our education.
2. Before any funding can be adequately budgeted, the first matter is to ensure Montana is fostering a healthy and prosperous economy. It is difficult to plan for 30 years in the future when the people are having difficulty paying bills and taxes today. From there, we should look at relieving taxpayer burdens as much as possible and where appropriate. Two examples of this include using public land more to generate state revenue and transitioning into a defined contribution plan.
3. Expanding Medicaid may be necessary, given our economic straits today. However, Montana should work towards creating an economic environment that allows people to generate wealth so they need not rely on Medicaid. Medical needs require individual attention and treatment. The Medicaid system does not necessarily allow for this kind of individual treatment and flexibility. Where people are able to fund their own health insurance, depending on their needs, the people will have more choice and flexibility, and the tax burden will be lighter. Montana should encourage this kind of personal health care planning, not primarily a “one size fits all” approach.
4. Any surplus in the budget should be used as a credit toward any future tax needs. What should not be done is spend the money simply because we have it.
5. The obvious answer, to most, is the economy. Many individuals and families are suffering because of economic woes. I agree that the economy is a huge issue facing the 2013 Legislature. However, to me, there are other very important issues, such as personal liberty, government prudence, state-federal balance, justice, and education.
Name: Ed Lieser
Bio: Currently a self-employed forestry consultant, fire behavior analyst on National Incident Management Teams and guide for Roads Scholar, an eco-touring business; retired forester from the U.S. Forest Service after 30 years, including 18 years on the Flathead National Forest; bachelor of science degree in natural resources from the University of Minnesota; 18 graduate credits in forest ecology and silviculture from the University of Montana, University of Idaho and Washington State University
Years in the valley: 22 years
Campaign website: www.lieser4legislature.com
1. Examples of legislation that could contribute to business growth are the reduction or elimination of the business equipment tax for small businesses and freezing property taxes for small businesses. No discussion of the economy of the Flathead, and specifically Whitefish, is complete without including tourism. Tourism contributes $2.77 billion from non-residents to the Montana economy, and Whitefish is a leader in the state. In Montana, one in 13 jobs is created by out-of-state tourism. Protecting our forests, lakes and streamsis critical to the local and state economy. Restoring ecosystems is a growing industry around the country and one that could generate good-paying jobs while healing forests and streams.
2. I view the resolution of this shortfall as an important priority because it is an obligation made to the state’s employees. The teachers and public employees retirement system can be fixed by using a variety of funding sources. A portion of the state’s budget surplus could be used, as could a portion of the revenue from oil and coal and an increase in the contribution from current employees. Beyond that, I think the Legislature should look at the advantages and disadvantages of a combination of a pension system and a 401k plan.
3. I think Montana should expand Medicaid. Extending health care is not only compassionate, but makes good fiscal sense. The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research projects the cost of expansion in Montana could reach $118 million by the year 2020. That would be offset by $750 to $900 million of federal money coming to Montana. I do not believe it would be prudent to forego the available federal funds. Furthermore, expansion would provide health care to approximately 50,000 people who currently use a very costly hospital emergency room. With medical coverage, people would be less likely to ignore chronic health issues and more likely to attend to incipient problems.
4. As mentioned earlier, a portion of the surplus could be used to address the pension shortfall. I believe property tax relief is another appropriate use. A portion of the surplus should be used to adequately fund public schools. It would be prudent to invest in infrastructure such as water and sewer systems, police protection and roads, particularly in places that are growing rapidly as a result of oil development. Investing in renewable energy research and development will diversify our energy portfolio and create future business opportunities and good-paying jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign sources. We must also keep a reserve fund for wildfires and other unforeseen obligations.
5. My first priority is to work with legislators of both parties in a collegial manner, listening to their thoughts and ideas to find a way to make Montana government work and accomplish the business of the people. Providing an environment that allows for business expansion and sustainable development of natural resources that creates jobs and revenue for the residents of Montana is critical. It is imperative that property taxes for lower, middle and fixed-income homeowners is addressed in such a manner that is fair and people will not lose their homes.
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