BILLINGS – Gov. Steve Bullock touted rising household incomes and low unemployment to make his case that Montana’s on the right path. But Republican challenger Greg Gianforte countered that declining tax revenues point to a stalling economy as the candidates offered starkly different portrayals of the Treasure State fiscal outlook during a Monday debate in Billings.
Gianforte, a Bozeman technology entrepreneur, has made the economy a central focus as he attempts to thwart Bullock’s bid for a second term.
And while Monday’s debate spanned widely — from the appropriate treatment of refugees fleeing war-torn regions, to Gianforte’s call for Commerce Secretary Meg O’Leary to resign over the award of a tourism contract to an out-of-state company — both candidates repeatedly returned to bedrock economic issues.
“Today we’re 49th in the country in wages and our kids are leaving, in large part because we have a failed administration in Helena,” Gianforte said.
Bullock responded by pointing to government data released last week that showed incomes in Montana rising at the fastest rate in the country.
“Don’t take my word. JP Morgan says we’re the most fiscally prudent state in the country,” the Democrat said. “At the end of the day you don’t build the (economy) up by giving tax breaks to out of state corporations and millionaires.”
Each side has legitimate arguments, according to analysts: The state’s economy is down from a banner year in 2015, but economists say it’s too soon to say troubles in parts of the economy will prove lasting.
The debate took a brief detour into personal matters when a panelist asked if the candidates ever had an extramarital affair. Both responded no.
Gianforte’s emphasis on headwinds facing the state’s economy is part of a broader effort by the Republican to question Bullock’ effectiveness.
It feeds into a narrative playing out on the national stage in which Republicans are pushing lower regulations and smaller government as an alternative to the status quo.
Whether voters will be listening or even buy into Gianforte’s arguments on the economy is uncertain, said University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin.
“Gianforte has identified a real and legitimate problem” with his emphasis on Montana’s low wages,” Saldin said. “What’s less clear if he’s identified a solution. This is not a new problem in Montana that emerged just in Steve Bullock’s time, and it’s also not clear what any governor’s going to do to change that, especially in the short term.”
Beyond the candidates’ divide on substantive fiscal issues during Monday’s debate were some personal attacks.
Gianforte hammered on Bullock, who was attorney general before governor, as a career politician.
To Bullock’s claims that Gianforte had outsourced jobs while working in the private sector, Gianforte accused the governor of peddling “a bunch of lies.”
Bullock said a Gianforte administration would drain the state surplus with tax breaks to the rich and corporations and “leave behind” the state’s sizeable American Indian population.
The two candidates have agreed to one more debate, on October 8 in Great Falls. Absentee ballots are due to be mailed out by Oct. 14 and the election is Nov. 8.
Bullock last month reported about $1.3 million in cash remaining as both sides have begun spending heavily on television, radio and online advertisements attacking the opposition.
Gianforte reported only $210,000 remaining.
But the Republican, who founded the technology company RightNow Technologies before selling it to industry giant Oracle, has shown a willingness to spend much of his personal fortune on the race. He gave his campaign $1.6 million through late August and has pledged to match every contribution he receives.