In a campaign marked by small-government rhetoric and frequent tours across the Treasure State, Republican Greg Gianforte has continued pushing for regulatory reform as he works to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
During a meeting with the Daily Inter Lake editorial board on Monday, the Bozeman businessman touted his business acumen and status as a political outsider to make his case for Montana’s top elected office.
“People tell me that the appeal of our campaign is that I haven’t run for office before,” Gianforte said. “I’m a business guy. And that’s refreshing to a lot of people.”
Gianforte shares the ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Lesley Robinson, a Phillips County commissioner who has held the office for the last 10 years.
“She represents [agriculture] and rural Montana, which honestly hasn’t had a voice in Helena for a long time,” Gianforte said. “One of the things she brings to the table is knowledge of local government.”
Despite a last-minute primary challenge, he has received the lion’s share of attention and campaign contributions among the two Republican candidates for governor. Republican Terry Nelson filed for the same post shortly before the March 14 deadline.
Gianforte said he’s “not yet at a point where [he’s] making specific policy recommendations,” focusing instead on outlining his broader political philosophy.
“There’s no question in my mind that the state can do a better job managing federal land than the federal government can,” Gianforte said. “I’m in favor of pilot projects that would give the state more control over [federal] land.”
He called for a more aggressive implementation of Farm Bill provisions allowing governors to target tracts of federal forest land timber harvest and fuels reduction. And citing the recent legal victory of Tim Fox and 23 other state attorneys general in fighting the Clean Power Act, he pledged to work more closely with other governors to pressure the federal government to increase timber harvest on U.S. Forest Service lands.
“The fact is, today, no one in Helena is doing that,” he said. “If that letter were to come from a whole set of governors, it would carry that much more weight.”
Gianforte pointed to Senate Bill 171, an income tax simplification bill sponsored by state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, as an example of tax reform he would have signed into law as governor. Bullock vetoed the bill after it passed the House and Senate last year.
“That’s not exactly the bill that I would have worked for, but I think it’s a three- to four-yard bill that was going toward the right end zone,” he said. “I would do something like the tax simplification bill, bring tax rates down, bring [capital] gains down. I would work to eliminate the business equipment tax.”
About $450 million currently sits in the state’s coffers. Bullock has called it a “rainy day fund.” Gianforte prefers to call it “overpaid taxes.”
The Republican proposed a combination of Tutvedt’s bill, an infrastructure bill and the elimination of the business equipment tax. He estimates the costs at $20 million, $100 million and $150 million, respectively.
While he said those changes could be phased in over multiple years, the single-year sum total would leave about $180 million in the bank, within the $150 million to $200 million in cash reserves he would aim for to retain the state’s credit rating.
A contentious infrastructure bill failed to clear the Legislature during the 2015 session. While less than the $150 million that would have been allocated by the contentious bill, Gianforte envisions allocating $100 million toward infrastructure projects in 2017 if he’s elected.
“I think the state has an obligation to provide funding, that is, a matching fund program,” he said, adding, “Water, sewer, bridges and roads come ahead of history museums and gymnasiums.”
Bonding proved to be a sticking point last year, and lawmakers were ultimately unable to compromise on how much of the bill should be paid for by loans versus cash from the state’s coffers.
“I don’t have a principled objection to bonding,” Gianforte said. “However, I would not support bonding if we had the money in the budget to pay for it.”
Gianforte completed a 60-town “regulation roundup” tour of the state during the past month, reaching out to Montanans for input on burdensome rules and regulations. He listed federal overreach, enforcement-minded state agencies, workers compensation and state licensure requirements as the regulatory themes attracting the majority of complaints.
“The culture of state agencies has become one of enforcement, not customer service,” he said, and noted that he pledges to seek more industry-friendly heads of state executive agencies.
A day before heading to Lincoln County to tour the Montanore Mine site, Gianforte cited the long-delayed project as evidence of a broken regulatory system.
He declined to name any specific regulations he would target, but said his regulation roundup tour had shed light on many opportunities for improvement.
“It’s really death by a thousand cuts. There’s no one regulation, or set of five. It’s all of it together.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.