At the first gubernatorial debate of the season, held Monday evening at the Montana Theater on the University of Montana campus in Missoula:
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer touted his energy record, job creation and investment in education;
Republican candidate Roy Brown said he would bring property tax relief, eliminate the business equipment tax and develop Montana’s natural resources;
and Libertarian Party nominee Stan Jones said he would get government out of the picture.
The three candidates stood in a row on the left side of the stage, in front of a screen with the silhouette of a rider on horseback and — on its right-hand panel — the Montana flag. In chairs across the rear of the set, five students sat, waiting with prepared questions. By 7 p.m., the theater’s seats had filled, mostly with students. In front of the candidates, Montana Public Radio news director Sally Mauk sat next to Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin.
About comments he made in July during a fundraising speech in which he joked about rigging parts of the election and harassment of Republican poll watchers, Schweitzer said, “Comedy can be a double-edged sword. I think I’ll leave it to the professionals.”
Brown threw a few barbs Schweitzer’s way. “I’m sure you enjoyed that answer. He didn’t answer the question. I will be an ambassador to Montana that you can be proud of,” Brown said.
Jones said, “My entire issue is Constitutional government — of, by and for the people. That is what I will reflect in all things.”
About global climate change, Brown treaded carefully around the issue of whether CO2 is a factor — “Put aside discussions and disputes, we can agree on one thing, the climate is changing.”
Jones said, “I don’t believe it’s happening because of human-caused events…. Coal-fired power plants? Let’s build them. We don’t have to worry about carbon dioxide.”
This kind of question taps Schweitzer’s favorite subject, and he rattled off his list support of renewable energy programs, including investment in wind energy and biodiesel production in Montana. And he wholeheartedly endorses the scientific community’s conclusion that CO2 is a major factor in global climate change.
On higher education, Jones said, “Any time the government gets involved in anything, it’s a mistake.” He would privatize all of Montana’s education system.
Schweitzer touted the “largest increases in funding in the history of the state” and his belief that the best-trained, best educated workforce is the most competitive.
Brown brought up his initiative to keep Montana graduates employed in-state, which involves giving businesses tax credits for paying the student loans of in-state graduates.
That’s when things got a little spicy. Schweitzer interrupted the moderator to counter his Republican opponent’s pro-education rhetoric, saying Brown had voted against initiative after initiative to fund education programs, the university system and scholarships.
In his response, Brown said dryly, “I think the governor does not support my plan to help businesses pay student loans.”
Brown and Schweitzer had another back-and-forth on energy production. Schweitzer touted a new coal mine. Brown said the governor had had nothing to do with the mine, which had been approved by a previous — Republican — governor.
Schweitzer quickly rattled off the energy production begun under his tenure and added, to laughter, that he owes “Eisenhower for building the Interstate highway system.”
Jones said, “I don’t believe in renewable resources. It’s bad, bad, bad policy. We’ve got to get government out of the picture.”
About healthcare, Jones said he would cut taxes, so people could take care of their own autumn and winter years of their life.
Schweitzer addresses specific programs to help seniors stay in their homes and have access to healthcare.
Brown said he agreed with Jones about cutting property taxes, which sparked another series of rebuttals. Schweitzer said the largest increases in property taxes came under the Republican tenure, as school districts turned to homeowners to make up budget shortfalls created by Republican spending cuts.
As for his stance on access to healthcare, Brown cut to the right of Schweitzer, saying he would form a commission to study the problem. “Universal coverage will lead to rationing of healthcare services. We have the best healthcare system in the country… in the world…. It will not be the best any more.”
To the loudest applause of the evening, Schweitzer said, “I think this nation needs a universal healthcare system. We need to work on this. We don’t need a commission. The next president is going to bring us universal healthcare.”
In his closing remarks, Brown went on the offensive, saying he wouldn’t joke about election fraud but would be “open, honest and accountable.” He added, “I’m a workhorse, not a show horse…. I have a vision for Montana. I have a vision of a strong economy coupled with a healthy environment and a better, not bigger, government.”
Jones said the “real issue is preserving our liberties. The Democrats and Republicans have abandoned the Constitution.”
Schweitzer said the Y Generation, those from ages 18 to 28 would have the greatest challenge of any American generation, to make this nation sustainable. To that end, he said, “We will make Montana the alternative energy center of the planet.”
The audience filed out, many with campaign stickers on their shirts.
Samantha Stevens, a 21-year-old English major from Chester, said she learned a lot about the issues. She liked hearing about specific solutions, she said.
Fred Slimp, a retiree who recently relocated to Montana from California with his wife, said he liked learning about important issues to Montanans. “Like natural resources. I’ll have to become more educated,” he said.
“Overall? The debate was wonderful. I loved it,” he added.