The Senate District 3 Republican primary race should be a lively one, with incumbent Sen. Bruce Tutvedt being challenged by a candidate who contends Tutvedt hasn’t been conservative enough.
Seeking a second term, Tutvedt holds the Senate pro tempore leadership position and is considered a possible successor to Senate President Jim Peterson in two years.
He is being challenged for the Republican nomination by Whitefish area businessman Rollan Roberts II, who says government needs to get out of the way for the state economy to flourish.
The Republican race was a three-way affair until last week when Jayson Peters announced he is withdrawing his candidacy. Peters’ name still will appear on the ballot. Absentee balloting begins Monday for the June 5 primary election.
Senate District 3 covers the western part of Flathead County plus the area north of Whitefish.
Tutvedt describes himself as a “traditional business Republican” who looks for practical solutions as a legislator, and he is proud of his record.
As chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, Tutvedt sponsored legislation that led to the state’s business equipment tax being cut from 3 percent to 1.5 percent on the first $3 million of equipment value. Tutvedt expects there will be efforts to raise the cut-rate exemption threshold to $10 million in the next session.
While significant progress was made last year to lower workers compensation rates, Tutvedt expects more work to be done to lower rates by an additional 10 to 15 percent.
“We’re trying to build a competitive tax system” and a business environment that is competitive with surrounding states, he said.
Tutvedt expects the state’s $3.4 billion pension liabilities for the public employee and teacher retirement systems will be another important matter.
“The Montana Republican leadership has made resolving the retirement issue a priority for the 2013 legislative session,” he said.
Tutvedt favors structural reforms that would involve treating new employees differently, allowing them to enter 401(k) type plans that are used in the private sector.
He predicts that if Republicans again have a majority, they will advance a series of bills aimed at medical tort reforms that all were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer during the last session.
Although he’s a Western Montana legislator, Tutvedt has taken a strong interest in oil and gas development in Eastern Montana because it would provide statewide economic and revenue benefits.
“There is going to be some more revenues,” he said. “We need a more predictable and business friendly environment.”
Tutvedt largely opposes special tax credits because he contends they shift tax burdens to other taxpayers.
Tutvedt said he takes a different view of tax credits than his opponent. He is proud that he had a hand in killing about $40 million in credits because they would benefit certain taxpayers with costs that would be shifted to others.
“I’m for low, flat and fair taxes,” he said.
Challenging an incumbent who is a Flathead Valley native, Roberts is an underdog in the race, but he is confident in his campaign strategy, work ethic and differing views on important issues.
Roberts, who moved with his family from Florida to the Flathead Valley in 2010, has been a visible presence with campaign signs on the streets, regular meetings with voters in Whitefish and mailed surveys and campaign materials.
“We’re just starting,” he said of his campaign. “I believe we have a strong strategy. I don’t do anything halfway and I don’t want to be a halfway senator.”
He said he has never had an ambition to enter politics and he doesn’t regard the state senate as a steppingstone to higher office, but he “felt called” to enter the race to make a meaningful difference in Helena.
Roberts said he took a look at Tutvedt’s voting record and positions “and I felt like I was a better, more conservative candidate.”
He takes exception to Tutvedt being praised for legislation that reduced the business equipment tax; Roberts said he believes it should be eliminated.
“That business equipment tax, even reduced, is extremely frustrating” for many business owners, Roberts said. “There was only one reason it wasn’t eliminated and that was my opponent.”
As with his position on tax credits, Tutvedt says completely eliminating the tax would cause severe impacts to local government and school revenues in places such as Yellowstone County, where abundant industrial equipment is a major source of revenue.
The reason there was compromise legislation is because there was pushback against eliminating the tax from lawmakers in those areas.
Roberts says Tutvedt’s job is to represent the Flathead.
Roberts also disagrees with Tutvedt’s views on tax credits.
He said he believes in incentives for strategic industries (such as the firearms manufacturing industry that has emerged in the Flathead Valley) rather than individual companies in Montana. He points out that Tutvedt also opposed legislation that would have reduced property taxes for energy exploration.
“I think it promotes jobs,” Roberts said of tax incentives for strategic industries.
Roberts puts a priority on jobs and the economy in his campaign.
“I believe the more government gets out of the way, the stronger the economy and the more jobs we’ll have,” he said.
He regards the state’s $3.4 billion pension liability as a problem that should be a priority.
“At a high level, I believe in free markets. We do need to find a way to keep the state solvent. Anything we can do to give people more freedom and more choice with their money,” he said, supporting a move to a retirement system based on a private sector model.
He also supports right-to-work legislation that would allow workers to choose not to be part of a union and not be required to pay dues to unions that contribute almost entirely to Democrats.
“I’m not anti-union at all, but I am about freedom of choice,” he said.
He said state government spending has increased by 50 percent during Gov. Schweitzer’s tenure in office, and he considers that unsustainable.
Roberts said there needs to be more resistance to assumptions that state spending must grow and he says reductions in spending increases should not be considered spending cuts.
“I think we should end auto-pilot budget increases,” he said. “Needs change, and the budget should change with those.”
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.
Rollan Roberts II