Rep. Dave Fern divides the world into pre-COVID and post-COVID, marked by shifts in the focus of his constituents.
“There were issues we were working on, like affordable housing and tax policy, and we’re still working on those because they are very important to the district,” Fern said. “But what I think is paramount now is adjusting to COVID and the impact it’s had.”
Fern sees the impact the pandemic has had on businesses and individuals, especially students who are navigating difficult times.
In Whitefish, Fern pointed to nursing home facilities, where there have been multiple deaths from COVID.
“I’m interested in nursing home improvement, reimbursement rate and the low-paid workers we have on the front lines with our elderly,” Fern said. “That needs to change if we expect quality work.”
Fern also sees domestic violence as a district concern, and plans on working with his colleagues to reexamine the Montana code while encouraging the county and state to find ways to assist in prevention.
In addition, Fern is “bullish on workforce development” and supports career education in secondary and post-secondary schooling, including expanding apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training, to better match talents to work availability.
For the upcoming legislative session, Fern sees challenges in balancing the budget for the upcoming biennium. His concern revolves around the anticipated shortfall in income tax revenue. Putting out calls to departments to become leaner and more efficient will be necessary, but Fern wants to wants to avoid cuts as much as possible, while also noting that this is not the time to consider tax increases.
“We have to remind ourselves that this is a people business,” Fern said. “So much of a department budget goes to pay people … I don’t think there’s really any easy solution.
Whitefish resident Catherine Owens is running for office for the first time to make sure Montana is a business-friendly state.
“You can’t get quality help when you don’t pay well enough,” Owens said. “We want to bring in more technical jobs, jobs that pay higher wages, but the last thing we want is the government stepping in.”
Getting the economy rolling in House District 3 is paramount to Owens. She cites high housing prices, high property taxes and low wages as prohibitive to individuals providing for their families.
A priority for Owens will be fighting for lower property taxes and searching for other sources of revenue for areas such as education. She pointed to tourism as a booming industry in the area and the “bed tax” as an area to increase revenue, as well as increasing the coal mining industry in the state.
Education is a key to getting into quality jobs, and Owens thinks the key lies in fostering trade and vocational schools. Making them more accessibly by focusing on the trades in the high schools, and opening up opportunities to older individuals, will help these “exploding industries.” As high-paying jobs with lower barriers to entry, Owens supports expanding this area of the job sector, in part by doing better advertising to remove the stigma surrounding them.
Overall, getting young people back to work and protecting the elderly is the quickest way to get past the state’s COVID slump, Owens said.
As a first-time legislator, Owens would keep the budget balanced not by growing the government or raising taxes, but by funneling existing revenue in different directions.
“Once I get in there and really learn and understand how it all works, I will better know how we intend to balance the budget,” Owens said.
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