State auditor hopefuls square off 

One of the greatest misnomers in Montana government is the office of state auditor, whose job involves no financial auditing but rather serves as commissioner for consumer protection and oversees Montana’s insurance and securities industries. The state auditor is a voting member of the Montana Land Board, in charge of the management of 5.2 million acres of state land. It is an office that only in the last 15 years or so has become politicized, used as a springboard for higher office, with both its name and function likely to evolve in the coming years.

This week, five of the six candidates for state auditor squared off in a forum sponsored by the Independent, KPAX-TV, the Center for Environmental Politics (CEP) and MontPIRG. The questions called upon candidates to express their views on the scope of the auditor’s job, the role of the land board in balancing environmental concerns with state land trust revenues, and ways the auditor can check the rising tide of fraud in the securities and insurance industries.

Democrat David Ewer, a state legislator from Helena, emphasized the “defensibility” of his decisions on the state land board, and called for greater openness concerning land board actions. He called himself “unapologetically for strong consumer protection” but opposes the “one-stop shopping” approach of consolidating the banking industry into the auditor’s office.

Fellow Democrat John Morrison, a Helena attorney, said he’s in favor in consolidating more of the state’s consumer protection roles from the Commerce Department, creating a single consumer affairs division. Morrison favors imposing higher reclamation bonds for the mining industry don’t leave taxpayers holding the bag for environmental clean-ups, as well as a clearer definition of old-growth timber.

Democrat Barry “Spook” Stang, a grocer and legislator from St. Regis, said strict enforcement of insurance and securities regulations will not drive the industry out of state, and thinks that regulating telecommunications and Internet fraud is best left to the Public Service Commission.

Republican Bruce Simon, a state legislator from Billings, called for a statewide comprehensive plan for noxious weeds and engaging the federal government to fight the problem. He favors tough enforcement of existing insurance regulations, but stressed making enforcement less burdensome to keep services in state and prices affordable.

Natural Law Party candidate and small business owner Rebecca Scott of Great Falls spoke mostly in vague platitudes about balancing competing interests, and deferred answering two questions until she had done more homework. Republican Joyce Schmidt of Bozeman did not attend.

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