Greg Gianforte brought his Regulation Roundup tour to Billings on Monday to look for ways to save businesses from “death by a thousand cuts,” but most of those who showed up had bigger issues in mind.
Billings was the sixth of 60 stops on the tour by the Republican candidate for governor. His goal, he said, is to find ways to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses to help Montana improve its status as 49th in the country in average wages.
“We need government,” he said, “just not too much of it.” Using a football analogy, he said he is looking for “three- to five-yard plays” to steadily improve the Montana economy.
About 20 people attended the meeting at Lonewolf Energy in Billings, among them representatives of banking, the energy industry, flying services, sportsmen and hoteliers. Also attending were Tony O’Donnell, a Republican candidate for the Public Service Commission, and Democratic state Rep. Kelly McCarthy.
Attendees offered a range of regulatory complaints, but most of their concerns are familiar big issues to Montana residents: They complained about workers’ compensation insurance, health insurance costs and the state’s infrastructure needs.
Many also apparently came simply to get to know the gubernatorial candidate a little better or to express support for his candidacy.
“You believe in the grass roots, and I do, too,” said Sharon Hummel of Billings.
Gianforte said he hopes to put his business expertise to work to develop more Montana jobs and provide stronger leadership in Helena. He is the founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, which he said employed 1,100 people at an average annual wage of $90,000 before it was sold to Oracle in 2012.
“I am an advocate for the private sector,” he said, “because that’s where I grew up.”
Montana college graduates now earn on average $24,000 less per year than the national average, Gianforte said.
In response to questions about workers’ compensation rates, Gianforte said that rates in neighboring North Dakota are only one-third as high as Montana’s rates. Montana is the most liberal state in the country for workers’ comp benefits, he said, and works on a claim system rather than a schedule of benefits, as North Dakota does.
In response to questions about infrastructure, Gianforte noted that the Montana Legislature failed to pass major infrastructure bills in 2013 and 2015. He said that he is not philosophically opposed to using bonds to pay for infrastructure projects but that budget surpluses should be used when available.
Gianforte said that excessive federal paperwork prevents Montana companies from hiring more employees and that the federal permitting process for oil and coal development imposes unnecessary costs and delays.
One problem Montana has in developing its tax base is that 45 percent of the state budget comes from federal money, Gianforte said.
“We’re not in a particularly good negotiating position because we’re dependent on federal dollars,” he said.
He did not respond directly to questions about eliminating “unisex” insurance provisions in Montana or about Common Core, a federally backed program aimed at standardizing education standards among the states. One person at the meeting said, “Common Core is one of the worst things to have ever happened in this and every other state.”
In response to a complaint about attacks on the Second Amendment from “our wonderful president,” Gianforte did say that he would not have vetoed two gun control bills that Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed during the last legislative session.
Gianforte reiterated his call for more computer science training to help create jobs that will allow trained Montanans to stay here or to return here.
“I want my kids around the table on Sunday afternoon,” he said.
A website has been erected at www.RegulationRoundup.com for Montanans to enter their own concerns about excessive regulations. Comments from the public are supposed to be posted there, but none had been posted as of late Monday.
Gianforte said prior to Monday’s meeting that comments have to be curated before they can be added and should be available soon. He said that comments at the first five sessions were all over the map but included a farmer who had to spend $3 million to find a new irrigation route after a dispute with a government agency over a diversion dam.
The first five sessions on the tour were in Roundup, Ryegate, Two Dot, White Sulphur Springs and Livingston. About 35 people filled the bar in Two Dot to express their concerns, he said.