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The Billings Chamber of Commerce recently asked nearly 50 local candidates for Montana Legislature and Yellowstone County Commission to answer 10 questions. Seventeen Yellowstone County Republican legislators/candidates refused, signing onto a letter complaining that “many of your questions demonstrate a bias toward raising taxes on Billings and Montana residents and the continued growth of government.”

What were these “biased” questions? They included:

  • Why are you running for state legislature?
  • What do you believe is the most important issue related to growing business in Billings and what are your suggestions for addressing that issue?
  • In the 2017 legislative session, local option authority was supported by the Billings Chamber, city of Billings, Big Sky Economic Development, Downtown Billings Partnership and numerous other organizations across the state. Under what conditions would you vote for a local option authority bill?
  • Tax increment finance districts are an important economic development tool for our community. How will you work to ensure one of local government’s most useful funding mechanisms is preserved?

Other questions asked if candidates would work to have a larger share of lodging tax revenue distributed to the localities where it is collected rather than staying in the state treasury; asked about state Medicaid rate cuts, tax reform, state support for a regional convention center in Billings and adequate facility funding for Montana State University Billings.

The last question on the chamber legislative survey was: How do you plan to work with all members of the Yellowstone County area delegation for the betterment of our business community during the 2019 legislative session?” The refuser group letter implies they won’t be working with anyone who asks questions their party dislikes.

We hope that this disappointing example of groupthink won't be standard operating procedure for the candidates who signed on. Four Republican candidates actually spoke for themselves individually, as did 16 Democrats and one Libertarian. We commend each of these independent thinkers for having the courage to state their positions.

Reading the GOP group letter, one might think that candidates were constrained in how they could respond to the chamber questions. In fact, the candidates could write whatever they wanted. Some simply answered yes or no. Most wrote sentences or paragraphs with nuanced responses that revealed their thinking on these public policy issues — which is exactly what candidate surveys should do.

Each candidate who refused to state his or her own position denied voters the opportunity to know what that candidate is thinking.

Here’s a shout out to the candidates who were willing to speak for themselves to the city’s largest business organization: Republicans Daniel Zolnikov, Josiah Loven, Rodney Garcia and Quentin Eggart, Libertarian Nathan McKenty, and Democrats David M. Graves, Jennifer Merecki, Mary McNally, Bryan Stafford, Blair Koch, Anne Giuliano, Kathy Kelker, Jessica Karjala, Terry Bouck, Emma Kerr-Carpenter, Darryl S. Wilson, Ben McKee, Danny Choriki, Dan Gold, Robyn Driscoll, Ming Cabrera, Jade Bahr, Amelia Marquez and Janna J. Lind.

Want to know what they said? Go to the chamber’s website or click on the link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com. The chamber also posted the letter from the refusers and explains in detail how and why it conducted this survey, including the method for listing candidates as “generally supportive” or “neutral or lean non-supportive” of Billings Chamber priorities.

Read up on the candidates yourself. The chamber survey is just one potential source of information. Another is the Gazette voter guide to contested primary races included in Sunday’s print edition and also online at billingsgazette.com.

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