Candidates sound off at forum

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Moderator Frank Miele is flanked by candidates David Fern, Dee Brown, Zac Perry, Jerry O'Neil and Ed Lieser at a forum Tuesday night sponsored by the Daily Inter Lake at Flathead Valley Community College.

Local legislative candidates sounded off on taxes and the state surplus, among other topics — sometimes with some striking differences — at a forum in Kalispell Tuesday night.

A crowd of about 50 people and 11 candidates attended the event at Flathead Valley Community College that was sponsored by The Daily Inter Lake. 

Another forum for legislative candidates will be held at the college Oct. 9 and a forum for county commissioner candidates will be Oct. 23.

Democrats on Tuesday tended to favor putting the state’s estimated $457 million surplus to a variety of uses, while many of the Republicans said they don’t even regard it as a surplus because of the state’s obligations to debts and taxpayers.

“It’s not the state’s surplus. It’s your surplus,” said Randy Brodehl, the House District 7 incumbent. 

“This $400 million surplus is really an overtax of the people. It’s time to give it back,” said Senate District 2 Republican candidate Dee Brown.

Democratic candidates mostly favored putting some of the money toward the state’s $3.4 billion long-term pension fund liability.

“We have a decision point is the situation. We have obligations,” said House District 4 Democratic candidate Ed Lieser, who suggested the money would best be split among the pension funds and property tax relief with a balance left for firefighting costs.

Senate District 2 candidate David Fern, a Democrat, had a similar position.

When asked about what issue the candidates might go against their party leadership, Lieser stirred things up when he said he would consider a properly structured, non-regressive sales tax, but only because he hears support for it from voters.

House District 7 Democratic candidate Diane Taylor agreed, saying that billions of dollars in nonresident tourism money passes through the state every year.

“It’s just broadening the base of who is paying,” she said. “They are used to paying it and they would pay it and when they are using our roads and services, there is no reason you wouldn’t shift  the burden to them.”

Jerry O’Neil, the Republican candidate in House District 3, warned that government can be “untrustworthy and greedy,” and he fears that a sales tax would be increased or not offset other taxes.

Brodehl agreed, citing government fees that never seem to go away. 

“Once they grab hold of it, you’ll never get it back — but it could get bigger,” he said. “The law is only good for two years, because when you get that next Legislature, things can change.”

Fern said the Legislature should always be interested in improving the state’s tax policies. “I think a key role is to eliminate regressive elements of any tax,” he said, referring to way in which the poorest can be the most heavily impacted by a sales tax.

House District 8 Democratic candidate Brittany MacLean said it was apparent that all attending the forum want to keep taxes lower.

“Tax incentives are an interesting and creative way to encourage the kinds of things we want to see in our communities,” she said.

Brown chimed in, saying she agrees with MacLean, particularly when it comes to preserving an 18-month tax holiday that is afforded to oil and gas companies when they start operations in Montana.

House District 8 Republican incumbent Steve Lavin discussed the matter of streamlining Montana’s business and environmental permitting process, and he said tort reforms are needed “to limit ridiculous lawsuits that hold up some of these businesses.”

There was some pushback on that from fellow Republican candidate Tim Baldwin, who is running against Lieser in House District 4.

Baldwin said that it’s not because he’s an attorney, but he believes in the primacy of the Constitution over politics. “We have to make sure individuals can seek redress from parties that injured them,” he said. “If I felt (tort reform) violated our Constitutional right to individual justice then I might vote against my party.”

 Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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