Montana gubernatorial candidates Steve Bullock and Rich Hill debated the last two nights in Billings and then Missoula. The major-party rivals say they offer voters a clear choice.

By Brooks Johnson UM School of Journalism

Say goodbye to bolo ties.

Whoever replaces Gov. Brian Schweitzer will be making an executive neckwear change. But that’s one of the few areas in which the candidates agree.

The race pits Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democrat, against former Congressman Rick Hill, the Republican. Throw in Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender and independent Bill Coate and you’ve got the cast of Montana Governor 2012.

The major-party rivals say they offer voters a clear choice.

“This election represents a crossroads,” Bullock said in an interview. “The congressman is looking backwards, and I think there’s great things ahead of us.”

Hill sees it differently. “Our agenda is focused on unleashing the private sector,” he said. “[Bullock’s] focus is on expanding the public sector.”

The two differ on issues ranging from abortion to tax reform and unions.

Hill, who defines himself as “pro-life,” supports the statewide ballot measure that would require doctors to notify parents when girls under 16 seek abortions. Bullock supports abortion rights and opposes the parental notification measure as government intrusion into a woman’s private healthcare decisions.

They also differ on public education. Hill’s plan would revise tenure laws to reward good teachers and replace bad ones. He would promote charter schools and allow tax breaks for foundations that support scholarships for students attending private schools.

Hill also supports changing how Montana pays for education, saying he would eliminate statewide property taxes for K-12 schools and replace the lost money with revenue from oil, gas and coal development.

Bullock, whose mother and stepfather were public school teachers, has criticized Hill’s support for school choice. Bullock argues for keeping taxpayers invested in K-12 schools to ensure stable funding and also supports freezing college tuition.

Both candidates support developing Montana’s natural resources.

Hill questions his rival’s enthusiasm by pointing toward Bullock’s vote against accepting Arch Coal’s winning bid to develop state-owned coal in southeast Montana’s Otter Creek area.

Bullock, a member of the board that oversees state-owned lands, defends that vote, saying the bid was too low. He’s voted for other leases that better served the state, he added. “And we’ll continue making sure we’re not selling our resources at bargain basement prices,” he told a Helena audience last month.

When it comes to health care, Hill is quick to tie his opponent to the controversial federal Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare. Hill points to Bullock’s refusal to join mostly Republican attorneys general in 26 states who unsuccessfully challenged the law in federal court.

Joining that effort would have wasted Montana’s time and money, Bullock said. He stops short of advocating the Affordable Care Act, but added, “We’re paying too much and getting too little. We need to challenge every cost and start paying for results and not just repeated tests.”

On tax reform, Bullock made a stir earlier this year with his plan to refund Montana taxpayers $400 as a direct stimulus. The money would come from the state’s current surplus. Hill supports permanent property tax cuts and replacing the lost money with revenue from energy development.

The two also clash over unions, with Hill saying he would support a right-to-work law, forbidding unions from making membership a condition of employment. Bullock promised to veto right-to-work legislation.

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Bullock, 46, was born in Missoula and raised in Helena. He received his law degree from Columbia University’s School of Law in New York and returned to Montana.

His first government job came in 1996 as chief legal counsel to Democratic Secretary of State Mike Cooney, and he was chief deputy attorney general from 1997 to 2001. He practiced law and taught in Washington, D.C. before returning to Helena in 2005. He became attorney general in 2008, defeating Republican Tim Fox.

Among the achievements he lists are increasing Montana’s minimum wage, strengthening recreational access to public lands and waterways, a tougher law on drunk driving, and a prescription drug registry to thwart doctor shopping by drug addicts.

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., Hill, 65, graduated from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 1968 and moved to Montana shortly afterward. He entered public life in 1993 as a lobbyist for Gov. Marc Racicot and was volunteer chairman of the State Worker’s Compensation Board. Elected to the U.S. House in 1996 and 1998, he didn’t run again due to vision problems he says are corrected.

Since leaving Congress, he earned a law degree – not to practice law, he said, but to understand how to make better laws. With experience in insurance and real estate investment, Hill says he’s the candidate of business.

Achievements he touts include reorganizing Montana’s worker’s compensation system, which faced a large deficit the early 1990s. As a Congressman, he supported welfare reform and helped Montana obtain rights to federal coal in the Otter Creek area in exchange for halting a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park.

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As the race heads to the wire, undecided voters may make the difference. A Lee newspapers poll in mid-September found 11 percent of those surveyed had yet to make a choice.

Vying with Bullock and Hill for that last chunk of votes are two third-party candidates.

Libertarian Ron Vandevender, who lives near Craig, opposes federal intrusion and is a staunch supporter of property rights. He supports cutting business taxes, establishing co-ops, and developing industrial hemp.

Independent Bill Coate, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in Helena, says the two-party system is broken. He’s campaigning for tax cuts, more energy development and less government regulation.