HELENA — Editor’s note: This story is part of MTN News’ ongoing series focusing on the contested statewide races in the June 2 primary election.
Republican state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell is a physician, an Air Force veteran and experienced legislator – all of which he says make him uniquely qualified, as governor, to guide Montana’s recovery from the economic and health fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was trained in the military to lead and to make decisions that deal with natural-disaster response, as well as man-made disaster response,” he told MTN News. “I’m also a physician who understands this infectious disease and what is truly applicable and what’s not.”
GOP Attorney General Tim Fox points to a 15-point economic plan he and his running mate are rolling out – including some elements specifically tailored to a post-pandemic world.
“We’re not waiting until January of next year to actually lead on these subjects,” he said. “No other candidate for governor is getting this prepared for what lies ahead.”
And the final Republican candidate for governor, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, says his business experience is what makes him the best choice to lead the state back from the economic brink.
“The challenge, however, is not everything was completely rosy before coming into (the pandemic),” he said. “We were near the bottom in wages, nationally. … We need business experience in the governor’s office to help Montanans prosper with good-paying jobs.”
Fox, Gianforte and Olszewski are competing for the 2020 Republican nomination for governor. Voters will start deciding the winner in less than three weeks.
Ballots go out May 8 to all registered voters in the all-mail primary and will be counted on June 2. The winner takes on the Democratic nominee this fall and two third-party candidates, trying to become Montana’s 25th governor.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock cannot run for re-election because of term limits, so the seat is open.
While the economy is always a major issue in any gubernatorial race, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout have made economic recovery the issue, along with the path forward from the health crisis.
MTN News asked candidates in the contested GOP and Democratic primaries to explain their plans for leading the state’s recovery, and why they’d be the best person to reach that goal. This story contrasts the GOP candidates.
Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon who served in the Air Force, said he expects the state to be facing a steep deficit when the new governor takes office in January 2021, as it comes out of a likely recession.
It will be important to fund government, particularly services that help the disabled and other vulnerable Montanans, but without raising taxes on hard-hit businesses and citizens, he said.
“We’re going to have to be creative … and that may mean being as radical as opening up our coal trust for this rainy day,” Olszewski said.
Montana’s coal-tax trust fund has more than $1 billion and takes a three-fourths vote of each house of the Legislature to spend it – a threshold rarely achieved. Olszewski said the trust was designed to be a fallback during a crisis, and that the current situation may qualify.
Money from the trust could be used to fund one-time expenses, until the economy and other tax-revenue streams recover, he said.
Olszewski also said he believes most Montana small businesses can start re-opening soon, as long as they continue social-distancing policies and take other precautions.
“If we don’t give them that opportunity, we’re finding out that they can’t pay their mortgages, they can’t pay their property taxes,” he said. “They’re going to lose their business, if they haven’t already lost it at this point.”
The rate of new cases of COVID-19 has slowed and hospitals in Montana have not been overwhelmed, and the goal always has been to slow the disease, not stop it entirely, he said.
Fox and his running mate, Jon Knokey, have been unveiling their wide-ranging economic plans since February.
The two-term attorney general said rebuilding Montana’s tourism industry will be a priority, in the wake of the pandemic, because Montana’s wide-open places should be a natural draw for people wanting to recreate far from crowds.
He also said he supports more investment in state-funded infrastructure projects, to help put people back to work.
“That could be roads, it could be bridges, it could be schools, it could be any number of things,” Fox said.
And, finally, Fox said it’s important that the state have a leader who has a record of getting things done by working with all political parties and persuasions – like himself.
“We can’t have polarizing figures in these leadership positions, particularly that of the governor – people who (people) don’t trust, who they don’t know what their plans are, (who’ve) given us no substantive information,” he said.
Fox’s comments are aimed at Gianforte, who says he’s drawing up a business plan for the state and will be proposing tax reforms, but who has yet to spell out the details on either front.
Gianforte, who co-founded a software development firm in Bozeman in the mid-1990s that grew into a global company, said he is “crowd-sourcing” his economic plan by asking Montanans for ideas, and will be releasing it soon.
“We’ve been compiling hundreds and hundreds of ideas from across the state as it related to value-added ag, increased trades education, a focus on education, getting health care costs under control, and we’re putting the final touches on that,” he said.
When asked whether he expects a state budget shortfall in 2021 and how he would handle it, Gianforte said he doesn’t have “a crystal ball,” but did say he’d like to put a lid on government spending and lower taxes.
“I can work with the Legislature to build a stronger, more pro-business environment so we can create more good-paying jobs and then use whatever (budget) surplus we can generate to incrementally bring down these (tax) rates across the board,” he told MTN News.
On tackling the coronavirus, Gianforte said the state and the nation need to “deal with the public-health crisis first,” and then map out how to re-open the economy, with proper precautions.
The nature and pace of that re-opening should be tailored to specific locales, based on their level of COVID-19 infections, he said.
“One-size fits all for the whole country doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If we can provide for public safety, Montanans are ready to get back to work and we should move toward that as quickly as possible.”
An earlier version of the story broadcast showed Intermountain. To clarify, Intermountain is not closing.