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Congressional candidates square off in Missoula

You have to reserve some pity for the candidate who, in the midst of July, must try to jump-start some life into a Congressional race where neither candidate faced opposition in last month’s primary, the general election is more than four months off, and much of the electorate is outside enjoying 16 hours of daylight each day.

This week’s economic forum for the two candidates for Montana’s lone congressional seat—Democrat Nancy Keenan and Republican Denny Rehberg— sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Missoula, was the kind of baseball-and-apple-pie setting that’s not the most conducive for flying sparks, despite some obvious and fundamental philosophical and political differences between the two contenders. That said, if you listen closely, the political catch phrases allow each candidate’s politics to show through.

Rehberg, a self-described fiscal conservative Republican and rancher from Billings, is a former representative in the Montana House of Representatives who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Marc Racicot, and who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1996. Rehberg’s speech focused primarily on what he sees as the deficiencies in the federal tax system, the economic problems facing families, schools and small family businesses, the need for alternative options for people to invest their Social Security retirement funds, and defending multiple uses of public lands.

“It seems we’re working more and more on a day-to-day basis toward satisfying the needs of the government, especially the federal government, than we are satisfying our own family needs,” Rehberg told a room of about 200 Kiwanians, guests and members of the press. “I don’t believe the Founding Fathers intended that to be the case. We have a taxation policy in this country that just doesn’t make sense.”

Rehberg used his own experience with the death of his great-grandmother in 1976 as an example of why he supports eliminating the federal estate tax, commonly referred to “the death tax.” He says his family was forced to sell off the house he was born in, as well as one-third of his family ranch, just to make the down payment on the estate tax, which he says wasn’t fully paid off until 1994.

On the subject of the environment, Rehberg used his own ranch in Billings as an example of proper stewardship for the land, where the “multiple uses” provide for areas to preserve for wildlife habitat, roads and earning a living.

“I can show you on my place where under-grazed grass is as dead as overgrazed grass, and under-logged timber can be, in some cases, as dead as over-logged timber,” Rehberg says. “We can’t sit around and complain that we’re 47th or 48th in the nation [economically] when we’ve destroyed our natural resource production jobs and we haven’t made the bridge yet to the newer technologies and the newer economy.”

Rehberg also used the forum as an opportunity to take a swing at the Clinton Administration’s roadless initiative, saying, “I don’t understand why we’re closing roads and … why unilaterally the Clinton Administration has made the determination to take the most extreme position on the snowmobiling issue within our national parks.”

Meanwhile, Keenan used her time to speak more about maintaining balance and fairness in government, from the federal tax structure to public land use, and spoke about how she plans to revitalize Montana’s economy through economic partnerships between government and business, the investment in new technologies in both small and large towns, and the need for Montana to cross the “digital divide” into the new economy.

Keenan, who has served three terms as the state’s superintendent for public instruction, emphasized how her 12 years on the state Land Board have taught her how to balance the competing interests of resource development, wildlife, public access and clean water. Clean water, she notes, is as much an economic issue as an environmental one, vital not only for attracting tourist dollars through hunting and fishing, but also for drawing clean industry like silicon chip manufacturers, which rely on clean air and water.

Keenan supports revising (though not eliminating) the estate tax, noting that two-thirds of its tax breaks go to the wealthiest Americans who are worth $5 million or more. Again, she emphasizes,“We can cover our family farms and not break the bank.”

To promote more job development, Keenan supports the formation of a private economic development authority that could provide start-up companies with venture capital and technical assistance programs like training in on-line marketing and e-commerce. She says that moving Montana into the new economy will also require a significant investment on par with the rural electrification program of the 1930s, which brought many of the state’s small towns and communities out of poverty.

“If you don’t think we’re on the wrong side of the digital divide, General Electric this year [announced that it ] will stop buying from businesses that are not conducting transactions on the Internet, says Keenan. “We are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“There is the new economy. We can complain and wring our hands about the economy that is slowly slipping away from us,” Keenan says. “But unless we look ahead, we’ll be left in the dust.”

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