Greg Gianforte and Steve Bullock painted very different pictures of Montana in a debate at Montana State University Billings Monday night.
Gov. Bullock, the incumbent Democrat, described a Montana that is fiscally prudent and a magnet for entrepreneurs. He said the state is growing rapidly in terms of median income and gross domestic product. Gianforte, the Republican challenger, characterized Montana as poorly managed, with declining reserve funds and low wages that drive young people out of the state.
The candidates also offered different plans for Montana. Gianforte emphasized his record of job creation as the founder of RightNow Technologies and his plans to cut income tax rates, freeze state spending and eliminate the business equipment tax.
Bullock repeatedly talked about working together with all parties to find solutions to Montana’s problems. He cited as an example of bipartisan cooperation the passage last year of the Montana HELP Act, which expanded Medicaid insurance to some 50,000 low-income Montanans.
Their supporters appeared to be about equally divided in the packed Petro Theater. Moderator Becky Hillier, host of the “Wake Up Montana” TV show, attempted to restrain the crowd’s enthusiasm, but growing applause marked the closing remarks in the hour-long debate.
When the debate ended, voices in the standing crowd shouted, “Greg! Greg! Greg!” But a nearly equal number of spectators appeared to be holding up “Bullock” signs.
Gianforte came out swinging, blaming Montana’s low wages on the failed administration in Helena. He also called for the resignation of Meg O’Leary, director of the Montana Department of Commerce, alleging that the department had awarded a “rigged” bid contract to an out-of-state firm.
Later in the debate, Gianforte charged that Bullock had appointed department heads with no experience in areas their agencies cover and that an auditor had been fired for whistle blowing. He also said that Bullock had vetoed more bills than any governor in Montana history.
“I am a businessman and a job creator,” he said, “not a career politician.”
Bullock began on a lighter note, saying, “Thanks for choosing us over ‘Monday Night Football.’” He said that Montana has made great progress, noting at various points in the debate that the state has been ranked sixth in the nation for business climate, first for tax fairness, and first for new business startups. A recent report showed Montana leading the nation in median income growth, he said.
He also said he hoped to get a chance to respond to the Department of Commerce allegations. But the chance never came in Monday’s debate format. Candidates each responded to the same questions, with no opportunity for rebuttal.
Earlier Monday, the Lee Capital Bureau reported that Gianforte was referring to a $7 million contract with a Wisconsin marketing company that Republicans say has ties to a state employee.
One point of agreement between the candidates was that both said they had not engaged in any extramarital affairs. That question was posed by Greg LaMotte of KULR 8 News, one of the sponsors of the debate, and it drew some moans from the crowd.
Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette asked Gianforte whether his foundation’s support of conservative and prolife groups posed a threat to Montanans’ civil rights. After initially failing to respond—his sole purpose in running was to create jobs, he said—he was asked the question again. He then said that he was concerned that such questions indicated an attack on his Christianity but promised to defend First Amendment rights.
Bullock noted that Gianforte opposed a nondiscrimination ordinance in Bozeman and said that Gianforte had supported a law in North Carolina governing restroom access based on sexual anatomy rather than orientation. The law has caused some businesses to cancel plans to expand or build in North Carolina and some groups to cancel tournaments, conventions and other events.
Bullock said that such have impacts on both values and the economy.
“We don’t build a greater Montana by tearing some people down,” he said.
Bullock’s managerial skills were called into question when it was noted that he has had three lieutenant governors during his administration. John Walsh, his appointee to the U.S. Senate, had to abandon his election campaign after it turned out that he had plagiarized a paper at the Army War College.
Asked about laws permitting firearms on college campuses and in classrooms, Gianforte touted his support of Second Amendment rights and his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. Bullock also expressed support for gun rights but said he would listen to law enforcement officers concerned that such laws would be dangerous.
“I’ve never abandoned common sense,” he said.
Gianforte expressed skepticism that he would sign any bills calling for local-option sales taxes, arguing that Montana cannot tax its way to prosperity.
“I’d have to see the bill, but I’m generally opposed to new taxes,” he said. Bullock indicated that he would be more likely to defer to the wishes of local communities.
Asked why voters should reject his opponent, Bullock touted a 2014 finding by J.P. Morgan that Montana was the most fiscally prudent state in the Union. He said that a Bullock administration would be more inclusive and better for Indians and would capitalize on opportunities to work with the private sectors.
Gianforte began his response this way: “Unfortunately, this is what you get from a career politician. You get a bunch of lies.” He said that small businesses in Montana are hampered by government regulations and by a state government that is more oriented toward enforcement than customer service.
Gianforte has made elimination of the business equipment tax a key component of his fiscal plan, but Bullock noted that the tax brings in $24 million a year for Yellowstone County. He also said that nine of the top 10 payers of that tax are businesses based out of state.
Montana can’t build its economy by giving tax breaks to out-of-state corporations and millionaires, he said.
Both candidates expressed support for continued coal production in Colstrip, but Gianforte accused Bullock of “flip-flopping” on the use of coal tax funds to build infrastructure.
Bullock said Montana has 28 percent of the nation’s coal reserves and said cooperation could lead to “incredible opportunities.”
“We’re working on a plan to bring people together,” he said. “My opponent doesn’t have a plan.”
Despite enrollment declines in higher education, Bullock was upbeat, saying that the state had frozen college tuition increases, increased funding and taken steps to link funding to performance.
Gianforte called for stronger links between education and job outcomes, computer science classes in all Montana high schools and a greater focus on trades education.
“Not everyone needs a four-year degree to succeed,” he said.
Asked about the state’s moral obligation to take in refugees from the Middle East, Gianforte said the governor’s top priority is to protect the health and safety of citizens. Thirty-one states have taken steps to keep out unvetted refugees, he said.
Bullock promised, “There will be no unvetted refugees coming to Montana.” But he cautioned against blocking all refugees.
Gianforte summed up by calling for development of natural resources, attacking federal overreach and emphasizing the private sector. He said that Bullock had received campaign contributions from groups challenging coal development.
Bullock said he had received contributions from 7,500 Montanans, including coal company officials. He also again emphasized Montana’s sturdy economic growth, attempting to counter Gianforte’s downbeat assessment.
“He’s continually betting against Montana,” Bullock said.