Candidates spar over energy development, wages, public land access

By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – During their first formal debate, Montana gubernatorial candidates Gov. Steve Bullock and Greg Gianforte fielded questions ranging from refugee resettlement to gun control, and raising wages in the state to lowering crime on Native American reservations.

The June 25 debate at Big Sky Resort was moderated by Ron Davis, chair of the Montana Broadcasters Association, during the organization’s two-day annual conference.

A panel of four Montana journalists asked the candidates questions in front of an invite-only crowd of approximately 120 people—this was the first televised debate prior to the November gubernatorial election.

Republican challenger Gianforte, who founded RightNow Technologies with his wife Susan in 1997, highlighted his experience in the private sector during his opening remarks.

“I’m a businessman, not a career politician,” Gianforte said. “As governor, I’ll focus on bringing high-wage jobs to Montana. I’ll also work to bring innovation to education so our kids are prepared for the jobs of the future.”

Gianforte said Montana is 49th in wages and “dead last in income for our kids.” He said RightNow Technologies—which was acquired by software giant Oracle in 2011—grew to employ 1,100 Montanans making an average salary of $90,000.

Gianforte also said he would bring accountability, transparency and a culture of customer service to Helena.

Democratic incumbent Bullock emphasized progress the state has made while he’s been governor.

More people are working in Montana than ever before in the state’s history, Bullock said, adding that 20,000 jobs have been created during his tenure. He said Montana’s wages are the sixth-fastest growing in the country.

Bullock called for bringing people together to address the state’s challenges and “responsible leadership looking to the future.”

Julie Weindel, news director of NBC Montana, asked the first question of Gianforte, choosing a topic that played a central role in the debate: wages and jobs.

She noted that 50 percent of Montana’s workforce makes $15 an hour or less, and asked Gianforte about his plan for improving wages in the state and where he stands on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“Even if we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it’s still hard to prosper on that wage,” Gianforte said. “I’m more concerned about maximum wages, not minimum wages.”

Gianforte said he believes raising the minimum wage would reduce employment opportunities, particularly for those just joining the work force.

In his rebuttal, Bullock said Gianforte’s “49th in wages” characterization doesn’t take into account the full spectrum of Montana’s workers. That metric excludes income earned by farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, telecommuters, and other workers who don’t fill out W-2s, Bullock said.

Becky Hillier, co-anchor of “Wake Up Montana,” which airs on ABC and FOX, asked Bullock how his energy policies would impact Montana’s jobs, referencing a study by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which found that energy and mining drive 20 percent of Montana’s economy.

Bullock acknowledged the role energy production plays in the state and said more Montana coal has been mined under his administration than during the three previous decades combined. He added that opportunities to expand renewable energy sources like wind and solar should be explored.

“This current administration hasn’t stood up for natural resource industries,” Gianforte said in his rebuttal, citing recent economic hits such as last month’s announcement that Columbia Falls would lose about 200 timber industry jobs by the end of the year.

“I believe we can develop natural resources here in Montana and preserve the environment. We can do both,” Gianforte said, using a recent trip to Nye as an example, where he watched a dozen bighorn sheep graze within 15 feet of the Stillwater Mine entrance. He said there used to be a “cowboy West” mentality in the early days of mineral extraction, but rules governing mining are stringent now.

Hillier referenced last month’s Orlando nightclub shooting in her question to Bullock about refugee resettlement and steps the governor would take to ensure any refugees resettled in Montana would be properly vetted.

“Fear shouldn’t define our values,” Bullock replied, adding that the Constitution doesn’t delineate who can enter state borders.

In his rebuttal, Gianforte argued there’s clear distinction between Bullock and himself on this issue. “I have concern for [refugees displaced by war], but it doesn’t extend so far as to actually move them into our homes and our communities.”

Jay Kohn, assistant news director of KTVQ, asked about a 2009 lawsuit between Gianforte’s wife and the state of Montana over an East Gallatin River access easement. The lawsuit has been making the rounds in state media, and Kohn asked Gianforte to address the lawsuit and state his position on wealthy landowners buying land and blocking access to the general public.

“I’ve been a huge proponent for stream access,” Gianforte said, adding that he’d invited Bullock to come out and fish but the governor hasn’t shown up yet. In regards to the lawsuit, Gianforte said, “We have never blocked access to the stream on our property… it amounted to a mistake on the [state’s] part as to the location of an easement.”

“Thanks for the invitation,” Bullock countered, “but the beauty is that’s a public right-of-way, I don’t need your permission.” Bullock said public access is a big driver of the economy and he called into question Gianforte’s support of groups that have joined with out-of-state interests in lawsuits to end stream access.

NBC Montana’s Julie Weindel said public support for some measure of gun control has increased 9 percentage points in the wake of the Orlando attack. In her question directed to Bullock, she asked where he would stand on gun restrictions if elected to another term.

“I’m a strong proponent of our Second Amendment rights today, and always will be in the future,” Bullock responded, adding, “the [National Rifle Association] called me ‘courageous.’”

“There’s only one candidate up here that’s endorsed by the NRA,” Gianforte rebutted. “I have an ‘A’ rating from the NRA. My opponent has a ‘C’ rating and he has, honestly, a lousy record in protecting our gun rights.”

By some accounts, crime on American Indian reservations can be 20 times the national average, Hillier noted in her next question. “How would your administration tackle this issue?” she asked Gianforte.

“We have an obligation to come alongside tribal leaders to improve outcomes there,” Gianforte said, adding that he’s established relationships in Montana’s reservations and led business seminars on the Fort Belknap reservation.

“I think the path to more prosperity, both for all of Montana and on the reservations, is in creating better economic outcomes,” Gianforte continued. “There is very little private sector opportunity on these reservations.”

“There are some jurisdictional challenges, but I’m pleased that we’ve worked in a government-to-government relationship,” Bullock said in his rebuttal, before switching his focus to economic development and education.

Other debate topics included each candidate’s plans for funding infrastructure needs; closing Montana’s wage gap between men’s and women’s pay; and how the environmental clean-up in Colstrip will be handled if out-of-state companies leave Montana to foot the bill.

In his closing remarks, Gianforte reemphasized his business acumen and desire to staff the state government with “people who’ve actually walked in the shoes of the people they’re trying to serve.”

Bullock in closing highlighted the value of public education and public land, reiterated his commitment to fiscal responsibility, and asked voters to think about “what kind of future we want for our state.”

Dates for future gubernatorial debates have not been locked in yet, but will likely be announced in the coming weeks.