Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got a warm reception campaigning for Montana Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill at Republican headquarters in Kalispell Thursday, but later in the day he was met with a union-organized protest at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.
Hill’s running mate, state Sen. Jon Sonju of Kalispell, was dismissive of the protest just before a closed fundraiser at the fairgrounds Thursday evening.
“He gets that everywhere,” Sonju said of Walker, who is now well-known for his public sector collective bargaining reforms in Wisconsin and surviving a recall election earlier this year despite massive union spending to remove him from office.
Asked Thursday about surviving the recall effort, Walker said it wasn’t that complicated.
“We ran on our record. We documented $1 billion in savings” that resulted from the collective bargaining changes at the state and local levels, Walker said, adding that his administration converted a $3.6 billion deficit into a surplus and unemployment has dropped from 9 percent to 7.5 percent over the last year.
“We knew all along that if we got the truth out we would win. The truth was our secret weapon,” he said.
At the headquarters rally and later at a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce business roundtable meeting, Walker touted the success of other Republican governors in turning their states around financially and economically — and he said Hill would do the same for Montana.
Hill agreed, referring to Walker’s profile on the national stage. “What’s exciting to me is that we have this group of Republican governors out there that are like rock stars,” he said. “They’ve all stepped up to the plate and made difficult changes.”
“Some of the biggest things we did is get government out of the way,” Walker said of regulatory and legal changes in Wisconsin.
A continuing theme for Hill and Walker was Hill’s proposal to implement long-term property tax reductions in Montana, a change he expects will be possible with anticipated increases in state revenue from oil and gas production.
Walker repeatedly referred to a proposal for a property tax rebate from Hill’s opponent, Democrat Steve Bullock, as a “one-time gimmick” that will not have provide lasting economic benefits.
Hill flatly rejected continued claims from Bullock’s campaign in advertising and other communications that he supports a sales tax.
“We have no proposal for a sales tax. It’s never been a part of our agenda,” said Hill, who explained that Bullock’s campaign is attempting to tie him to former Gov. Marc Racicot’s effort to put a sales tax before voters in the 1990s. Hill served as the administration’s liaison to the Legislature in getting the sales tax proposal on the ballot. Montana voters rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin, Hill said, and that was that.
“I haven’t spent a half hour thinking about a sales tax for the last 20 years,” said Hill.
He said he will pursue an economic growth agenda and contended Bullock has no similar plans.
“The biggest debate in this election is not about taxes, it’s about how you measure success,” said Walker, adding that Democrats measure success by how well government is supported while Republicans measure it by how well the private sector is performing.
Later in the afternoon, almost 200 people gathered on Meridian Road in front of the fairgrounds to protest Walker’s visit. Some of them arrived by charter bus from Missoula.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep. Rick Hill has been keeping company with one of the most ruthless, anti-worker governors in the country,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO. “The divisive, anti-working family agenda that Scott Walker pushed in Wisconsin is definitely not what workers want here in Montana.”
He pointed out that Hill supports right-to-work policies that protect workers from being compelled to join unions and that Bullock has taken a strong stance against “right-to-work-for-less” laws.
The Flathead Area Central Labor Council also participated in the protest.
“Scott Walker has made a crusade of trying to destroy unions and the middle class in Wisconsin,” said Mike Thiel, president of the Flathead council and a local math teacher. “For Rick Hill to buddy up with Walker like this shows Hill’s true colors. Rick Hill obviously has the same union-busting, anti-worker agenda as Walker.”
Sonju confirmed that Hill would sign right-to-work legislation as governor.
“But it’s not the top priority of the campaign,” he said. “The top priority is the economy and jobs.”
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.