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Montana’s U.S House candidates squared off for the first time Tuesday in a Gazette editorial board meeting streamed live online.

In a dense, hour-long discussion on topics ranging from public lands and gun control to healthcare, Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte occasionally found common ground, but differed considerably on major issues.

The candidates are vying to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as Montana’s lone congressman. Libertarian Mark Wicks is also in the mix. Zinke, a Republican, resigned in March to join President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Montanans can begin voting at county election offices as early as April 25. Absentee ballots will be mailed out May 1. The final day to vote is May 25, the Thursday before Memorial Day.

Land/natural resources

On public lands, Quist called the federal transfer of public lands to states a primary election issue. He accused Gianforte of funding groups like the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, which the musician said wanted to sell off public lands.

“To me, this is the defining issue of this race. Throughout my whole career, you can hear that I’ve been standing up for our wild lands through my music,” Quist said.

Quist said groups like PERC, an economic research group that promotes market-based incentives for conservation and stewardship, are out to privatize public lands. The group was founded by former Montana State University economists. He also singled out the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports more state input on developing energy resources on federal lands.

Gianforte said he does support more state involvement in federal land management decisions.

“To be clear, I do not support deed transfer of lands, I’ve been unequivocal on this. Mr. Quist is just confused on this issue,” Gianforte said. “Better decisions get made when they’re made locally. That’s the management I’m looking for.”

Gianforte said the federal management of forests in Montana isn’t working. He advocated for more agreements like a clause in the current farm bill that allows Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock to make timber decisions on millions of federal forest acres blighted by bark beetle-killed trees.

Quist pointed to an unsuccessful attempt to ship beetle-killed Montana lumber to Haiti to build housing as something the state could apply in Montana to build homes on American Indian reservations.

Trump and Russia

On supporting an independent investigation of Russian involvement with President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Quist said a third party investigation was warranted. Democrats have said congressional Republicans are too invested in Trump to conduct a fair investigation.

“I really feel we have to have an independent investigation on this. When there’s an investigation going on, you cannot have people who have an agenda to protect, being involved in this,” Quist said. “This is something, I think we need to have transparency in government and I think it goes a long way when we have and independent investigation toward that transparency. If there is collusion, the American people need to know.”

Gianforte said transparency is needed to assure that lawmakers can work together. But he didn’t call for taking the investigation out of the hands of Congress if evidence of Russian collusion was found.

“If there’s evidence that shows there’s some intervention, we ought to look at it and Congress ought to pursue it,” Gianforte said.

Health care

Federal involvement in health coverage, Gianforte said the Affordable Care Act created by former President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, was a disaster in need of replacement. He stopped short of supporting anything that would end coverage under Medicaid expansion in Montana, where legislators have conditioned the program's continuation on at least 90 percent funding from the federal government.

“Medicaid expansion that occurred in Montana has added 70,000 more people onto coverage. Let me be real clear, we cannot rip the carpet out from under these people,” Gianforte said. “If you look at the four purposes of the federal government, one of them is to provide a social safety net to people who cannot take care of themselves. We can’t rip the carpet out. In the same breath though, I have concerns about the long-term costs of these programs and how they get paid for.”

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Gianforte said he couldn’t support the health care reform bill proposed by House Republicans last month. The bill didn’t muster enough votes and a second try is expected, likely after Montana elects a new representative.

Gianforte said he supported making prescription drugs more affordable and allowing more choice in insurance markets for consumers. For Republicans this usually means allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.

Quist said there needs to be lower prescription drugs prices, something Medicare recipients currently cannot negotiate. He said Republican plans to ditch the Affordable Care Act would hurt seniors and diminish service at rural hospitals, while benefiting the wealthy people with tax breaks. Quist is an advocate of health care completely funded with government dollars.

Gianforte said fully government funded health care wasn’t an option that would produce the best health care for Americans. Quist said Medicare, fully funded by the federal government, has worked fine for seniors.

“I think Medicare is probably one of the most successful programs that’s ever been instituted in our country in terms of health care and that’s just a great system,” Quist said. “You walk in, you show your card, you’re covered. No questions asked.”

Gun control

On gun control, Quist dispelled campaign messaging that he supports a gun registry, saying he only supports registering automatic weapons, he said during a Montana Public Radio interview March 27. In that interview, Quist also said he supported universal background checks of gun buyers.

He accused Gianforte of supporting gun registries, apparently because Oracle, a company that bought Gianforte’s Bozeman software business, has done some gun database work for the federal government. Asked if Gianforte could be implicated in Oracle’s database work while having no relationship in the company that bought his business, Quist said Gianforte and Oracle were friends.

“First of all, he sold his company to it. And he says he still maintains a close relationship to it.” Quist said. “This is a data collection organization and they are collecting data on gun owners.” 

Gianforte said: “I have been a lifetime member of the NRA. I have an A rating from the NRA. My opponent has an F rating, had advocated for a gun registry. I think if you look back at history, the registration of guns is the first step toward the confiscation of guns. That’s not a Montana value.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.