Mano a mano 

Schweitzer v. Brown—the Helena Debate

This week’s debate between gubernatorial candidates Bob Brown and Brian Schweitzer proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: No matter which of these men walk into the governor’s office in January, either will be a quantum leap in ability, imagination and energy over what we’ve had for the last four years. And for that, all Montanans should be overjoyed.

In many ways, these two guys are a lot alike. Both are affable, articulate and smart. Both are Montanans and damn proud of it, and both want Montana to do better in the future than it has done in the past.

On the issues, both support the initiative for higher tobacco taxes to fund health programs. Both support an open-container ban and mandatory seat belt laws, and expect them to be enacted in the next Legislature. And both support the constitutional initiative to ban gay marriage.

But while they agree on many things—perhaps too many to make a great debate—they also fundamentally disagree on some very important issues.

Take I-147, the initiative that seeks to overturn Montana’s citizen-passed ban on the use of cyanide in heap leach gold mining. Bob Brown supports the initiative and Brian Schweitzer opposes it.

Brown says that Montana is the only state that has banned the use of cyanide, reasoning that if other states deem the technique safe, Montana ought to be able to use it safely, too. Brown also believes that mining provides the kind of jobs that will lift Montana’s wage level from dead last in the nation.

Schweitzer says Montana doesn’t need cyanide mining to have a good economy. Furthermore, he says the millions that Canyon Resources raised through stock sales to bankroll the cyanide initiative should have been spent cleaning up the toxic mess they left behind at the Kendall Mine near Lewistown. Then, if they can prove to Montanans that they can be “responsible corporate citizens,” they can enter the political arena to try and influence public policy.

How about the sales tax? Brown says he would support sending a sales tax to a vote of the people as part of a tax reform package—but only if it was a dollar for dollar replacement for income and property tax reductions. Schweitzer, on the other hand, is flat-out against a sales tax and believes Montanans should look to gain further revenue from the 10 million visitors who pass through the state each year.

Both support higher funding levels for education. Brown says $20 million more is about right. Schweitzer says he won’t put a number on it, but Brown’s $20 million is too little. He also promises that four years from now, should he be elected governor, Montana’s colleges will no longer have the highest tuition cost relative to personal income in the nation, which he says “is driving up the misery index” of Montana families.

Both men are religious, but they take different tacks on religion’s role in government. Schweitzer credits “praying the rosary” with his “devoutly Catholic” family over paying hail insurance premiums—and he says it worked, too, because they lost few crops. Brown is a Baptist and says those who take their faith seriously know it has a lot to do with focusing their lives and shaping opinions, citing his own pro-life stance. Schweitzer, however, says he can “separate my personal faith from being governor—which is being governor of all the people,” and maintains that a person’s religion is “intensely private and should be at home or in church.”

On partisan politics, Schweitzer says he will “not be the governor of a political party, but the governor of a state,” pointing to his choice of Republican John Bohlinger for his running mate as “a clear signal that the days of pointing partisan fingers at each other are over.” As governor, Schweitzer says he will “expect all Montanans, and especially every legislator, to work together.”

Brown, a 26-year veteran of the Legislature and its often intense partisan battles, says he is “a great believer in working with the other party,” but believes the parties have basic principles, citing Republican goals of keeping the tax and regulatory burdens low. Brown opposes the medical marijuana initiative. Schweitzer says he isn’t against the idea, but doesn’t understand how we are going to keep the pot away from the recreational drug market. Schweitzer says he will join the governors of 11 other states to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Brown says that would violate federal law and “lawlessness is not leadership.”

Both men say they understand that the security needs of the Capitol have changed. Brown says he is “uncomfortable” with many of the new requirements and would like to “keep it to a minimum.” Schweitzer says the Capitol is “the people’s building and we need to keep it that way,” adding that he “has been in 27 countries around the globe, has never needed a bodyguard, and won’t need one as governor,” because one of his border collies is likely to be around most of the time.

Brown says Schweitzer is inexperienced at politics. While it’s true that some of Schweitzer’s ideas seem naïvely idealistic, he correctly points out that Brown has been intimately involved in running the state for 26 years, so why “stay the course” with him? He’s got a point, too—many of Brown’s ideas, like returning to extractive industries as a mainstay of the state’s economy, are indeed old and tired.

As Schweitzer said in his closing: “Democracy only works if you show up.” So show up, listen to these guys closely, and make your vote count. After all, the future of Montana is what’s at stake. [The full text of the debate can be accessed online at www.helenair.com/debate].

P.S. Thanks to the alert reader who caught an inadvertent error in last week’s column, “Nelson v. Younkin.” Although Younkin chaired the House during the Coal Trust debate, that was not the bill on which she solicited “one more vote” from the rostrum. The bill was SB 407, a “limited sales tax” which added another 3 percent tax on campgrounds and a new 4 percent tax on rental vehicles. After Younkin’s injudicious plea, the bill got the “one more vote” and was signed into law.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com

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