The candidates for Montana’s next governor went toe-to-toe over campaign finance

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explorebigsky.com Editor

BOZEMAN – Gubernatorial candidates Steve Bullock and Rick Hill tiptoed around the elephant in the room during their second-to-last debate on Oct. 26 at the Montana Farmers Union convention in Great Falls, focusing largely on agricultural issues.

But the following night that elephant, campaign financing, crashed the party early.

In the final debate of this campaign season, held at the Riverside Country Club in Bozeman on Oct. 27, Bullock, a Democrat and Hill, a Republican, sparred over education, minimum wage, property taxes and natural resource management. But the debate’s first topic, on the legality of campaign contributions, set the tone for the evening.

Bullock, who won the coin toss to answer the first question, said Hill is the only Montana candidate running who hasn’t returned donations that exceed limits set by state law.

“No one in Montana is above the law,” said Bullock, the state attorney general. “Not the common criminal, a crooked CEO, or a former congressman running for governor.”

“I’ve fought hard to make sure our elections are about people and the peoples’ voices,” he added.

Hill countered, saying he accepted the money after a judge ruled Montana’s contribution limits unconstitutional.

“First of all, these contributions were legal,” he said, stating Democrats have dumped $3 million into campaign ads attacking him. “Steve can hide behind this outside money that came from these other sources,” he said. “But this is transparent, it’s legal and we’ll be vindicated in the end.”

Bullock stepped. “Congressman, it’s illegal,” he said, maintaining his campaign, Bullock for Governor, returns all money exceeding legal limits.

Jay Kohn, a panelist from KTVQ Billings asked Hill, “Is it the right thing to do keep that money? Is it ethical?”

“Yes, it’s ethical,” Hill responded, saying television stations are making money by selling expensive advertisements to outside sources. “These vulgar and offensive ads destroy the voter process.” He said his campaign has spent money on positive ads.

Last week, Bullock (pictured at left) sued Hill in state court over a $500,000 donation the Republican accepted on Oct. 4, a day after a U.S. District Court judge ruled the state’s campaign finance law was unconstitutional. Six days later the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a stay on the ruling, and a district judge on Oct. 23 ordered Hill to stop spending the money and cancel existing ads the campaign bought with the $500,000 donation.

Later in the debate, state sales tax sparked a tense exchange. The candidates agreed neither would propose a sales tax in Montana. However, they didn’t agree with one another.

Hill responded to panelist Donna Kelly of KBZK by saying he would veto a sales tax, should that bill cross his desk, citing resource revenues could help with property tax reform.

Bullock stated that in previous debates, Hill had said Montana might be better off with a sales tax. “There’s been a number of different answers [from Hill] throughout this campaign about this,” Bullock said.

“Wait a minute, Steve,” Hill replied. “I have never proposed a sales tax in this campaign. You can have your dogs quit running ads lying about it.”

Throughout the debate, Bullock kept his eyes trained on the television cameras, trying to appeal to a broader audience. Hill generally addressed the room of panelists, journalists and an invite-only audience.

Bullock called Hill a “chicken little,” maintaining his opponent thinks, “the sky is falling” on Montana. “I don’t think anyone agreed with you when you voted against raising the minimum wage five times in Congress.”

Hill shot back. “Let’s raise the minimum wage to $50 an hour,” he said. “Then what would happen? We have record numbers of young people unemployed in Montana and all over the country, and it’s largely because of recent increases in minimum wage.”

Following the debate, Hill lingered, talking with journalists and supporters.

“I got the points I wanted [to make] in,” said Hill (pictured at right). “[Bullock’s campaign] has been lying about sales tax.”

Bullock left the room after the debate, but one of his supporters had his mind made up.

“I’ve watched all the debates,” said Dave Tyler, of Belgrade. “Bullock had better answers [than Hill tonight].”

Tyler then said something that reflected what many voters are feeling about campaign advertising this year.

“I wish the election was yesterday.”