HELENA — An oil-and-gas development impact fund, freezing college tuition in Montana and tax cuts for small business are among the ideas Democratic legislative candidates will be promoting this election — and, at the 2013 Legislature, they said Wednesday.
Montana Democrats, in the minority at the 2011 Legislature, unveiled a broad range of plans to boost Montana’s economy, culled from a series of “listening sessions” with businesspeople and local officials across the state in the past several months.
“(People) didn’t say the state needed to lay off thousands of public-service providers; they didn’t say that we should give massive tax breaks to out-of-state corporations, many of whom are their competitors,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula. “They asked us to take a smart, middle-of-the-road approach to create a stable business environment in Montana.”
Williams, Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, and House candidate Jenny Eck of Helena said the plan will serve as a “menu of options” that Democratic legislative candidates can use in their campaigns if they choose.
Williams also said Democrats plan to pursue the goals whether they have majorities or not at the 2013 Legislature.
“If people are strongly supportive of these programs and want to go forward, then I think we can make a bipartisan connection,” she said.
Republicans hold a 28-22 edge in the Montana Senate and a 68-32 majority in the House. The Nov. 6 elections will determine whether Republicans maintain their majorities.
Hunter said the most common theme they heard from businesspeople was the importance of education and its link to providing a skilled workforce to fill jobs.
“It’s safe to say that there is no job creation that is independent of education,” he said. “They go hand-in-hand.”
Hunter said Democrats have always emphasized and supported state funding for education, but that Republicans weren’t really serious about it during the last Legislature.
When asked how or where Democrats planned to find more funding for schools or the university system, Hunter said the state has a substantial surplus of cash in its treasury right now.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, noted that Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill has proposed a new school-funding plan, using natural-resource taxes to replace some property taxes as a funding source for schools.
“We’re the ones who are talking about innovative solutions for education funding,”
Hunter also said the Democrats’ plan is a diverse set of ideas that aims to develop many aspects of the economy, while “what I seem to hear from Republicans at this point is that natural-resource development is the (only) answer.”
Other aspects of the Democrats’ plan include:
An oil-and-gas impact fund, perhaps financed by oil-and-gas tax revenue, to help Montana communities react to effects of booming oil and gas development.
Elimination of the property tax on up to $1 million of business equipment for any individual business.
More workforce training, with consultation with business on where it’s most needed.
Development of all types of energy, including renewable power and conservation, and a possible expansion of the mandate for utilities to invest in renewable power.