The Senate District 2 race features Republican Dee Brown and Democrat David Fern, candidates with clear contrasts but also a few similarities.
Brown is an eight-year veteran of the Montana House and Fern has served 20 consecutive years on the Whitefish School Board, along with other education-related boards.
Both are longtime small-business owners vying to represent the district that covers the North Valley. Current state Sen. Ryan Zinke is not running for re-election.
“I have a strong, positive feeling about trying to be involved,” Fern said of his dedication to the Whitefish School District.
He asserts that his experience on the board would serve him well in the Legislature, which allocates more to education than other aspects of government.
“Education in general takes up a pretty big chunk,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to have an understanding of where the dollars go.”
Education is unique, he said, because it is people-intensive. “You’re not producing widgets,” he said. “You need an understanding of what it takes for students to be successful.”
Fern said the Legislature typically appropriates money to education at the end of each session and he believes it is a priority that should be promptly addressed.
The public employees’ retirement liabilities of an estimated $3.4 billion will be an important matter in the upcoming session. “You can’t kick the can down the road on this,” he said.
While many Republicans, including Brown, want to see the retirement funds structurally changed to allow new employees to contribute to the plans, Fern said he wants to evaluate solutions that will be effective in the long run.
“There will be competing bills on this,” Fern said. “My mind is not made up on the direction to go.”
Regarding the state’s $457 million budget surplus, Fern refers to conversations with voters who are interested in the economy and jobs, property taxes and quality schools.
Spending some of the money on job-creating projects, providing temporary tax relief and addressing school funding shortfalls may be the best use of surplus funds, he said.
He said voters also are interested in creating a more business-friendly environment.
Regulatory changes are needed, he said, but there also needs to a be a recognition of the importance of resources such as Flathead Valley Community College, which serves as an educational hub with benefits for business.
He recognizes that natural resource revenue is likely to become more important to the state.
“Certain sectors of natural resources are going to provide more dollars, and we need to wisely use those dollars,” Fern said. “I certainly think it’s important to our future.”
Brown says much more can be done to improve the state’s business climate, starting with further reducing workers’ compensation rates and the remaining business equipment tax.
She recently met with a tourism forum where a major topic was the need to reduce regulations wherever possible to help businesses thrive.
Another topic at the forum that has been of interest to Brown: protecting state bed tax revenues from being raided by other interests in Helena.
“I’ve always said we’re all in the tourism business in Montana,” she said, explaining how bed tax revenue is used to promote the state for the benefit of everyone. “Legislature, keep your hands off the bed tax money.”
Brown is, however, a champion of establishing a trade office in Calgary that would promote Montana products in Canada, and using a share of bed tax revenue that is earmarked for the state Commerce Department to do it.
Brown said legislation creating a trade office would need to come with a mechanism to end the program if it becomes ineffective.
She characterizes the state pension fund liabilities as a “huge issue” mainly because it will fall on the backs of taxpayers if the system isn’t changed.
“The core issue is that the taxpayers are going to be paying for years to come so there needs to be a transition to a new system,” Brown said, noting that a “defined contribution” plan for new employees will be necessary.
Brown does not mince words when it comes to the state’s budget surplus: “Those are excess taxes paid by hard-working Montanans and the majority of it should go back to Montanans who have paid them. There are always people who are willing to spend it. I don’t think we need to budget and spend more. We need to give taxpayers some relief.”
Brown, who worked as a teacher in the Columbia Falls School District for years, said she has observed firsthand how well the public sector fares when the private sector does well. There should be a greater effort to sell that to public sector employees who can be a hindering political force for the private sector.
“We have forgotten that government workers are our employees and we need to make them more friendly with our customers,” she said.
The state can do more, particularly in regard to natural resource development, she said.
“I think it’s time to get the Treasure State back to work,” she said. “If we’re going to invite investment we need to make the business environment as friendly as possible.”
Both Fern and Brown mentioned their common interest in pressing for an expedited upgrade of U.S. 2 through Bad Rock Canyon.
Fern also wants highway improvements west of Whitefish and he said that half a bypass highway around Kalispell “just doesn’t cut it.”
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.