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Auditor candidates clash over health care, state lands

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By Hanah Redman University of Montana School of Journalism

Candidates Derek Skees and Monica Lindeen are traveling the state, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the most misunderstood office on the ballot: state auditor.

For starters, the auditor’s office doesn’t “audit” anything. Instead, it works to protect people from investment scams and ensures that insurance companies pay their customers’ rightful claims. The auditor also sits on the State Land Board, which regulates the use of more than 5 million acres of state land.

“We’ve done a lot of great things for Montanans,” said current Auditor Lindeen, a Democrat who is putting her four-year record on the line. Her rival Skees, a Republican legislator from Whitefish, is rallying opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

A history major with a bachelor’s degree from Central Florida University, Skees opposed Lindeen’s efforts last session to implement the new federal health care. If elected auditor, he said he would advise lawmakers on issues surrounding the act and educate them about its flaws.

Last session, Lindeen recommended four unsuccessful bills designed to help Montana administer the new federal law. Skees accused her of trying to implement the law while he and others in the Legislature were still fighting it.

Health care reform

Lindeen, who did her graduate work in educational foundations at Montana State University in Billings, said her bills would have allowed the auditor to review and enforce the parts of the act that aren’t currently in Montana law, such as allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

She also wanted the ability to review premium rates for health insurance. Otherwise, she said, the federal government will regulate those changes. If elected, Lindeen said she would introduce the rate-review bill again.

“Every insurance commissioner in this country has a legal obligation to implement and make sure that the law is being followed,” Lindeen said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. As the insurance commissioner, that’s what you do.”

Skees said Lindeen should have opposed the federal law instead of working to implement it.

“She defends herself by saying it’s the law of the land,” Skees said. “What I say is, to blindly follow something, even if it’s wrong, is still wrong.”

Skees also said he extended six invitations to Lindeen’s campaign to debate the Affordable Care Act and was ignored.

Lindeen said she would accept an invitation that came from an outside organization, but said she doesn’t think she should have to accept one from Skees individually.

Managing state lands

Another aspect of the auditor’s job is voting on the management of state-owned lands and natural resources as one of five members of the State Land Board.

While Skees says the current land board should be streamlining the way for businesses and others to lease lands and access more natural resources, Lindeen says the board has been very successful over the past four years.

Skees said he would use his position on the State Land Board to confront the federal government about land policies that he sees as detrimental to Montana and work to get the use of those lands more directly under state control.

“This state is burning to the ground, and the beetles are destroying our forests, and the wolves are killing our game, and this is all federal policy,” he said.

Skees said in an email that if he were on the land board, he would “do anything (he) could think of” to facilitate business growth through the use of natural resources.

He said the land board could allow more businesses to operate on state lands and give a boost to the state’s economy by making it easier for businesses to receive permits.

“You need to look at results, not strategic votes without follow through,” he said.

However, Lindeen said the current land board has approved natural resource leases that have provided over $250 million in state revenue. That is more than any Land Board has done in the same amount of time in Montana’s history, she said.

“I have voted for every single oil, gas, timber and coal use that’s come before the land board,” she said.

Role as watchdog

Both candidates point to their backgrounds in business. Lindeen founded one of the first Montana-based Internet service providers, and Skees took over his family’s construction business before joining Roger Porch Construction Inc., where he is now vice president.

One of the main jobs of the Auditor’s office is dealing with restitutions for investment fraud and insurance claims. Lindeen said she is proud of the work her office has done for the past term.

“We’ve been able to get over $15 million in claims paid that wouldn’t have got paid otherwise,” she said.

Skees said it’s the auditor’s job to be the “watchdog” over insurance companies, and that as auditor he would work to eliminate regulations that have nothing to do with good insurance practices.

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