Primary Candidate Q & A

By Beacon Staff

Local primary candidates for state Legislature were asked the following questions:

1. What can the Legislature do to encourage economic recovery and job growth?

2. What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the Legislature?

3. Given that the Legislature appears to be starting with a surplus, what would be your budgetary approach heading into the session?

Name: Mark Blasdel Senate District 4
Age: 37
Party: Republican
Occupation: Owner of Vista Linda Inc., family restaurant and catering business
Political Experience: Montana State House of Representatives, four terms, elected 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012; elected Montana’s 52nd Speaker of the House for the 63rd Montana Legislature; Served on House Judiciary and Education; served on taxation committee for three terms, chairman in 2011; served on Judiciary Committee in 2013; served on Education Committee four terms, Local Government Committee in 2007, and Rules Committee in 2007 and 2013.
Residence: Kalispell

1. I believe the Legislature can do more to get out of the way of our job producers in this state and let Montana ingenuity and work ethic lead the way to economic growth. We first can simplify and lower personal income tax so that we can compete with the states around us. Currently, Wyoming and South Dakota are at 0 percent, North Dakota is at 3.9 percent and Montana is at 6.9 percent. The more money we don’t collect from the entrepreneurs and employees in this state, will allow each of them to make the best decisions for their families and businesses while promoting more investment. Secondly, I will continue to work on building off of the successes of the past two sessions on worker’s comp reduction (26 percent since 2011), lowering of the Business Equipment Tax (eliminated the Tax for 17,000 small businesses while cutting it for all the remaining businesses), and tightening up Montana’s unemployment laws. Third, I will continue to bring a business voice that pushes for consistency in our business climate through legal reforms, limitations of rulemaking by our departments, and help create an environment that truly says “Montana is Open for Business.” Finally, I will continue to support job skill training at FVCC and our Community and Trade Colleges so that we can have a trained work force.

2. The most pressing issue facing Kalispell, the Flathead Valley and Western Montana is the current CSKT Water Compact and the long-term consequences of passing this permanent piece of Legislation. I believe the current compact with its claims of off reservation water rights will have a negative effect on the growth of Kalispell and the Flathead Valley. The Second major issue is the implementation of Obamacare through Medicaid Expansion and the Long Term Costs to the State and where the State will get the money when the Federal Government does not keep its promise of payment. Finally, the discussion of Montana taking back management of our federal lands and how Montana can do a better job to manage these resources for funding of education, infrastructure and to create more access for Montana’s citizens.

3. I will be working to give it back to the taxpayers because that is who overpaid. Last session the Montana State House passed over $250 million in permanent property tax, income tax and business equipment tax legislation only to have most of it stalled in the Senate or vetoed by the Governor. It is time for real permanent tax reductions and the taxpayer’s coming first instead of Government.

Name: Tammi Elizabeth Fisher Senate District 4
Age: 37
Party: Republican
Occupation: Attorney
Political Experience: Mayor of Kalispell 2010-2014
Residence: Kalispell

1. Get out of the way of our employers’ ability to grow and thrive by eliminating job killing regulations and limiting state government’s funding focus to those areas that support economic recovery and job growth – infrastructure, education, and public safety. For economies like Kalispell’s where construction and tourism are primary industries, infrastructure maintenance and development is critical to our economic recovery. Our kids can’t compete in the job market and recruit new employers to our state without a quality education guaranteed by Montana’s Constitution. Employers and new businesses looking to relocate to Montana seek a quality of life that no other state can guarantee. Maintaining a low crime rate, strong criminal justice system and low residential and commercial insurance rates through adequate fire suppression and response times keeps our communities safe and makes our state ideal for business investment and relocation.

2. Lack of strategic planning. Without legislative restrictions on budget surplus dollars, the threat of irresponsible spending looms large. No plan exists for the $495 million dollar surplus the taxpayers sent to Helena – no plan to return it, no plan dictating if and how it will be spent. We need a strategic plan for how taxpayer dollars are held and spent so the taxpayers are assured State Government is funded in the amount necessary to ensure the long term financial security of Montana, and is returning the rest.

Being strategic means actually addressing issues thoughtfully and in a manner that reflects Montana values, rather than just saying “no” without advancing an alternative or solution. The past shotgun approach to legislating has been a resounding failure and a reflection of the gridlock in Washington D.C. Montanans expect and deserve a result-oriented legislature. Strategic planning would restore confidence in state government and would ensure a reliable and responsible path for Montana’s future.

3. Returning surplus dollars to the taxpayers. We do this by setting limits on the amount of surplus the State should retain. In order to ensure long term solvency of the State and account for economic downturns, “rainy day fund” or reserve account legislation should be implemented. Most budget authorities suggest an adequate state reserve fund is 10 percent of the general fund. Even after keeping 10 percent in the savings account, the State currently holds about $50 million dollars more than it needs in taxpayer funds. My budgetary priority would be to return the excess $50 million to the taxpayers, and ensure State government receives only the amount necessary to function responsibly and in accordance with the promises made by the Montana Constitution.

Name: Doug Adams House District 5
Age: 51
Party: Republican
Occupation: Owner of Landscape Perfections West, Inc.
Political Experience: Whitefish City Councilor, 2003-2006; Deputy Mayor, 2005-2006.
Residence: Whitefish

1. It’s not the Legislature’s responsibility, nor is it in the Legislature’s authority, to create jobs or manipulate the economy. The Legislature should be concerned with protecting our freedoms. That doesn’t include helping us out financially. In reality, when the government manipulates our money (via taxes, welfare, jobs programs, etc.), the government is telling us that the free market doesn’t work and that politicians know how to take care of us because we’re too stupid and lazy to take care of ourselves. It’s true that many people make poor personal and financial decisions and that many are not motivated to be productive in society (probably made that way because of the welfare that they’ve been spoon-fed). But it’s a person’s right to make bad decisions, and human nature to take advantage of the current welfare system. It just shouldn’t be rewarded. So what can the Legislature do to help the economy and job growth? Quit looking for ways to increase regulations, fees, taxes, and welfare. Let the free market work. Let people determine their own success or failure. Hold people accountable for their decisions by not providing a safety net for those conditioned to rely on their neighbors’ dollars for subsistence. Quit rewarding people for poor decisions. Then the economy will take care of itself, and jobs will follow.

2. There are many important issues to be addressed by the 2015 legislative session. The CSKT Water Compact, Obamacare, Common Core, and returning our public lands back to the state come to mind. Notice that these all involve the federal government. So the biggest issue is pushing back against the overreach and bureaucracy of our out-of-control federal government. We Montanans should have the right to decide for ourselves what is in our best interests, not have it dictated to us by professional politicians in Washington, D.C.

3. My budgetary approach would be to make sure that we keep a prudent reserve, fund any liabilities that the State is obligated to (teacher’s pensions, for instance), and return the rest to the taxpayers. We should strive to shrink our state government and thus, its budget. We should adopt zero-based budgets for government departments. We should change the way public pensions are funded and contributed to. We should quit coming up with costly pet projects that qualify as social engineering. We should give more power to local governments, since most seem to be doing a fine job of managing themselves and responding to their constituents’ desires.

Name: John Michael Myers House District 5
Age: 31
Party: Republican
Occupation: Attorney
Political Experience: Former member of the Board of Trustees for School District 5
Residence: Whitefish

1. The Legislature should continue to find areas where we can repeal regulation and “red tape” that stifles business growth on various levels. On the other end of the fiscal spectrum, we need to upgrade our state’s infrastructure, which includes not only upgrading our current transportation and utility systems, but also ensuring that Montana possesses the technological infrastructure to invite new job sectors and allow our businesses to access the resources they need to stay competitive. It is also important to provide strong support for public education so our future generations can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

2. If fortunate enough to be elected to the Montana Legislature, I will focus on two issues that I think are the most important right now. First, I will work to foster meaningful tax reform that keeps taxes low and expands our tax base. In addition, as a former school board trustee I understand the importance of ensuring our education system and teachers have the resources they need to prepare our students for success and be well-rounded citizens.

3. I would use the surplus to bolster our “rainy day” fund so that in future down times we can keep taxes low and maintain a stable environment for business owners to help them continue to create jobs, all of which would shorten a recovery time in a future recession.

Name: Frank Garner House District 7
Age: 51
Party: Republican
Occupation: Chief of Security, Kalispell Regional Healthcare; former Kalispell Police Chief
Political Experience: None
Residence: Kila

1. 1) Cut the marginal tax rate by at least one hundred million dollars. Montana enjoyed surpluses in the hundreds of millions of dollars the past two sessions and is expecting another next year and yet the Legislature did not pass meaningful tax relief for the average Montanan. Cutting the marginal tax rate would put that money back into the hands of taxpayers and our local economies now instead of banks in Helena.

2) Support educational outcomes that provide our kids and those in our work force with the skills for the jobs that businesses need. We have almost four thousand people unemployed and thousands more under employed in Flathead County. State government needs to encourage innovation and collaboration between our community stakeholders to include business groups, schools, our college, philanthropic groups, churches and others. I have experience in managing multi-million dollar budgets in the private sector and the public sector and I know what it takes to put people to work. I want to use that experience to help lead that effort.

3) Create a regulatory and tax environment that is limited and that our communities can depend on. It’s one of the most important things state government can do to encourage private investment and business development. I will put this community first and prevent special interests from getting their way. That is why I committed to only taking contributions from people that live, work or do business in the Flathead.

2. Leadership. There are many pressing issues, tax relief, public employee pension deficits, the Water Compact, healthcare and others. If we can’t even provide tax relief when we have a four hundred million dollar surplus, how can we expect the Legislature to tackle other difficult issues?

3. Budgeting at my house, and in the businesses and government agencies that I’ve managed, has always required we spend less than we make. It requires we put money away for a rainy day and that we do without some things we want so we can have the things we need – so it should be in government. The state budget is in the billions of dollars. The process is complex, but these principles are universal: identify what we need, and return the rest to the taxpayers to spend it on what they want. It isn’t hard to find your way to Helena; the important part is remembering who sent you there.

Name: Ronalee Skees House District 7
Age: 46
Party: Republican
Occupation: Senior Executive Assistant at Immanuel Lutheran Communities
Political Experience: None (married to former House Representative and Public Service Commissioner candidate Derek Skees)
Residence: Whitefish

1. I moved to Montana after marrying Derek, this was where we wanted to spend the rest of our life and raise the kids. I had been involved with helping families in crisis for most of my career, including teaching life-skills and GED preparation in inner-city projects, program manager for a homeless youth shelter and coordinating food outreach programs for seniors and families in crisis. I received an award and was recognized by the state of Florida for the mentor program I started in the homeless shelters. When we moved to Montana I continued this heart of service in our community.

2. I have been to Helena as a legislative spouse and as an active citizen. I have not held elected office but I have served in Helena! I get asked, “What are your qualifications?” I thought about my answer to this question first by lining out all of my accomplishments, and then I thought more about the question. I realized I am qualified for a Citizen Legislature because I am just like you. We raise our families, we work hard at our jobs, and we give to our church and volunteer in civic groups. We serve those in our community, and this is an extension of that service.

While I was in Helena, I studied the rules, read the bills, navigated legislative services, and above all learned the importance of the relationships with the other legislators and the ability to work together. I continue those relationships today and it was those leaders who have encouraged me to run in this season, to take those skills of leadership and come back in a new role. Those experiences make me a leader day one in Helena.

3. I have been out talking with my neighbors, my time at the doors has given me an opportunity to listen. While economy is a big concern, it is not just about jobs. People want choice; choice in education, choice in healthcare, and choice in how to recreate in Montana. Accessing our resources and land is about growing the economy as well as enjoying the reason why we live here. Transparency and government accountability are important to so many people who see government exceeding its constitutional role.

I believe there are real solutions to the issues and have the ability to work on those in Helena.

Name: Alex Schaeffer House District 7
Age: 43
Party: Democrat
Occupation: Reading tutor at Cornelius Hedges, independent contractor
Political Experience: None
Residence: Whitefish

1. Given the growth in local breweries, a short answer is to encourage others to drink more beer. Honestly though, the niche that has had a local landmark here for over a century has it right. Local businesses transforming a raw product into a desirable want creates a strong and sustainable economic base. Kalispell Kreamery is a great example of expanding its market by creating a diverse portfolio of stuff we want and then putting it where we shop. Expanding the reach for the local business to take advantage of the markets near and far is a smart investment. Promotions and advertising are areas that can build local business and the legislature can actually be innovative in these areas. Current and future markets depend more and more on Montana’s ability to connect. Communications infrastructure is not cheap but can make the thought of planting a broader range of new businesses here even more attractive. Incentives and tax reforms do impact the bottom line and keeps the doors open. People want to live here and visit so ultimately protecting what we have around us is critical. A great place to live is not an accident nor should it be left to chance. Tourism remains limited only in our own creativity. This industry depends upon leadership that keeps the invitation honest to those who visit. This truly is the “last best place.”

2. Bipartisanship. Have you set foot in the Capitol during recent legislative sessions? Our inability to seek compromise and solution is opening the door, willingly inviting an increasing out-of-state presence in our Legislature. Millions of out-of-state dollars pour into this state through elections, referendums and proposed laws, helping only a few rich people to build an empire of ideology of their design. It’s a corruption of Montana ideals. The Montana legislature must keep a simple promise: give voice to its citizens regardless of the size of their wallets. When the path is clear but our ways of getting there differ, we must work together for what’s best.

3. Caution would be the approach. The next fire season is always just around the corner. A balanced checkbook has taken careful planning that is disciplined and innovative. Montana’s financial stability in a country with many bankrupted states can easily be taken for granted if the same foresight, giving us freedom from debt, is not forwarded in upcoming sessions.

Editor’s note: Catie Henderson, a candidate in the Democratic primary running for House District 7, did not respond to the Beacon’s request to participate in the question-and-answer forum.

Name: Michael Hebert House District 11
Age: 41
Party: Republican
Occupation: Insurance agency owner
Political Experience: None
Place of Residence: Kalispell

1. “Undo” the heavy tax burden on hard working Montanans who want to start a new business or own a business.

Return state lands back to the state. Wealth is made from the land and water: agriculture, timber, oil, coal, gas, livestock, hunting, hydro power, outfitting, alternative power, manufacturing, real estate and tourism to name a few.

Cut property and income taxes for all Montanans.

2. Obamacare/Medicaid expansion.

Obamacare was forced on us against our will. It destroys all that is good with healthcare in America.

Medicaid expansion was introduced last session as House Bill 590, and it is the lifeblood to Obamacare and the socialization of healthcare. It’s a political maneuver, not compassion. We must protect Medicaid for the truly needy, not create an entitlement program to just get votes and empower the Democrat party. Expansion will add up to 100,000 new people. Expansion is misleading and destructive. Expansion is to give able body working Montanans, many already insured by an employer into a tax payer supported system. This will burden the system and hurt the 70,000 needy people already enrolled in the program. Right now Medicaid takes up 22 percent of the budget, education takes up 20 percent, roads 42 percent. If we double Medicaid it will take up the largest portion of our budget, and continue to grow. How will we afford for education and roads then? Raise taxes? Montana could go bankrupt.

I, Mike Hebert, am your best candidate for stopping this great tragedy.

On the other hand, my opponent, Dr. Al Olszewski last session on the behalf of the liberal Democrats and Gov. Steve Bullock, urged for Medicaid expansion. Dr. Al Olszewski said, “I as an independent physician, urge you as legislators to take and use the passage of House Bill 590 as catalyst to fundamentally and comprehensively reform an institution of entitlement created 50 years ago called Medicaid, and I will pledge you my time and talents in that endeavor.”

The Republican party stood up against Al Olszewski and the liberal Democrats to stop it dead. By electing Mike Hebert and other true conservatives, we will protect the needy and stop the political attempts to destroy our healthcare and our budget.

3. Simple: Give it all back to the taxpayer.

I am very pro-life and pro-gun. I promise to be the most vigilant Representative in Helena on these issues including protecting our land, property and water rights.

Name: Albert D. Olszewski House District 11
Age: 51
Party: Republican
Occupation: Orthopedic Surgeon
Political Experience: Former candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Montana Republican Primary 2012; Montana Representative to the Physician’s Council for Responsible Reform, National Republican Congressional Committee (2009 to present).
Residence: Kalispell

1. I believe our Legislature can encourage Montana’s private sector to create jobs by removing all unnecessary bureaucratic regulations that create an uncertain economic environment. Specifically, I would sponsor legislation that would repeal the current business equipment tax that discriminates against agriculture, businesses and manufacturing that require expensive high-tech equipment to grow their business. In addition, I would champion the idea that our legislators critically analyze how Texas has created an economic environment that has boosted their state’s economic recovery in an unprecedented manner. I would support implementing Texas’ reforms and innovations in our state in a “Made in Montana” fashion.

2. The most pressing legislative issue is without a doubt Medicaid expansion. Our legislators are being pressured by our executive branch and a citizen’s initiative to force 50,000 Montanans into Medicaid. This is unacceptable and I oppose this top-down, bottom-up strategy to increase the government’s control of our state’s healthcare system. This push to expand Medicaid must be defeated by providing an alternative. As a conservative I believe that we as the Republican Party need to demonstrate by our actions that we are the party of equal opportunity and champion alternative private health insurance for working poor Montanans that is supported by federal grants similar to those insurances which middle-class and upper middle-class families of Montana are eligible through the health insurance exchange.

3. It is simple. I would return all surplus funds back to the residents of Montana. My approach to the budget would be to critically analyze our state’s revenues and expenditures during the last 12 years that a budget surplus existed. I would determine an acceptable reserve fund in order to pay for unanticipated revenue shortfalls. I would support legislation that returned the budget surplus to our residents through reduced state income tax rates for all Montanans. This budget surplus is better put to use by returning the several millions of dollars back into the pockets of hard working Montanans, than to be left in Helena where it would tempt future legislators to use it to grow our state government.

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