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Dems in western House primary talk inflation, student loan debt

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Democratic candidates in the primary for the newly created western U.S.

Democratic candidates in the primary for the newly created western U.S. House district from left, Cora Neumann, Tom Winter and Monica Tranel.

In one of the state’s most expensive communities, the three Democratic candidates in the primary for Montana's newly drawn western U.S. House seat each tried to convince voters they’d be the best choice to address the high cost of living in a rapidly changing state.

With two and a half weeks left until the primary election, candidates squared off in a forum hosted by Gallatin County Democrats and answered questions on a broad range of topics from moderator Mike Wheat. Wheat is a former state Supreme Court justice and was a Democratic legislator representing Bozeman.

The primary is between Cora Neumann, a Bozeman nonprofit executive who has focused on public health issues; Monica Tranel, a Missoula lawyer who has experience in the energy and natural resources sectors; and Tom Winter, a former state lawmaker from Missoula who works to expand access to broadband.

In response to a question about how the candidates would address inflation, Neumann said she would work to bring back manufacturing jobs to Montana and the U.S.

The consumer-price index rose 8.5% in March, marking a 40-year high, and decreased only slight in April to 8.3%

“I've watched how manufacturing and production in our country has deteriorated over my lifetime. That's got to be a top priority,” Neumann said. “We make sure that we have more American companies in Montana companies employing Montana and American families.”

She also said work to take on price gouging, something she said is happening not just with oil and gas prices but also prescription drugs and groceries.

Tranel pointed to several major oil companies recently recording record-high profits, something she said needed examination.

“We are all paying higher prices at the gas pump and these global corporations are recording record profits. So what is going on here?” Tranel said.

Tranel also said the pandemic caused a "Slinky" effect where the economy was frozen and then restarted, leading to things running hot. She pointed to the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a start to addressing the problem, but said in Congress she would want to see price controls.

“We've done them before in the United States when we had a frozen and restarted economy in a very quick moment in time, so we know how those work, “ Tranel said. “We can do them.”

Tranel also called for examining tariffs put in place and still remaining from the Trump administration.

“Some of them are still hanging out there. They're not working as intended,” Tranel said. She also said imposing higher taxes on the very wealthy is a step she’d take if elected. 

Winter said he would support the Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax Act recently introduced in Congress to tax large importers or extractors of taxable crude and make payments back to individual taxpayers.

“The money that's being charged, I would say unfairly, toward Americans specifically at the gas pump will then be kicked back to middle-class and working-class families through a windfall tax. It has been done before we can do this again,” Winter said.

He also pointed to the crisis caused by a lack of availability of baby formula, saying for decades the government has been unable to rein in companies, leading to price gouging on things in short supply.

“We now have a baby formula crisis during a time when some of the prices to raise a child are the highest possible,” Winter said. “We must rein in corporations in general, not just windfall taxes, but ensuring that we break up monopolies on behalf of the people.”

In a town with one of the state’s flagship universities, the candidates were also asked how they’d bring down the increasing cost of higher education.

Winter called student loan debt “a generational tax on the young put forth by wealthy and often powerful older interests.”

“I support ending and canceling student debt and reforming the system that makes it so that someone graduates from college with a mortgage before they can buy a house,” Winter said.

Winter said student loan debt is causing his generation to have children later and not get involved with things like public service because they’re saddled with massive loans repayments for “debt we did not deserve.”

Neumann started her answer by saying not everyone was a right fit for college and that she supported increasing trade union apprenticeships as well as making community college free in Montana.

When it came to debt, she said she supported forgiveness for those in public service.

“One of my pillars that I hope to push forward from Congress is making sure that our teachers and our nurses and those in public service across our state can afford to live here,” Neumann said. “We need to recruit and retain health workers, mental health workers, teachers, and … a cornerstone of making sure that can happen is debt forgiveness and housing assistance.”

She also said she’d want to increase the opportunities for Pell Grants.

Tranel said she supported targeted relief.

“(It's) making sure that it's going to people and communities (and) families that need it so we're helping our working-class families live in the communities where they work,” Tranel said. “Teachers should be able to live in Bozeman, so I support targeted relief that's delivering our resources (to) people into their communities.”

Tranel criticized policies she said have increased the cost of college by making it profit-oriented and said those needed to be reversed. She pointed to two-year schools like Gallatin College, the approved-but-unfunded Bitterroot Valley Community College and MSU-Northern in Havre as campuses that do or would serve the needs of their communities at an affordable cost for students.

“Funding all of those is a priority for me,” Tranel said.

The primary election is June 7. Ballots have already been mailed to votes on the absentee list, and those who haven't received them but were expecting to should check with their local elections office.

Montanans can register to vote until noon on June 6.

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