BUTTE, Mont. (AP) — Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Rick Hill sparred Thursday on natural resources, wildlife issues and education in their second gubernatorial debate.
The tone before a packed house in Butte was sharper compared to their first meeting last week in Helena. Both men touted their experience: Hill as a former congressman and in the private sector, and Bullock as attorney general and member of the state Land Board.
"People ask me why I am running for governor, and my answer is — I'm scared for my grandchildren and I worry about whether or not they're going to inherit the American dream," Hill said.
Bullock quickly turned that around in his response.
"I'm not running because I'm scared of my children's future, it's because I'm excited about it," he said.
Bullock and Hill are campaigning to replace Brian Schweitzer, who can't run again because of term limits. They met in front of an overflow crowd in the 250-seat Montana Tech auditorium.
Hill said the state needed more and better jobs, and the best way to do that is to increase natural resource development, improve the regulatory environment and improve the quality of education. That will prevent Montana's best and brightest from leaving the state, he said.
Bullock said he agreed on the importance of development but said it needs to happen responsibly. He cited Butte's mining history, saying the lessons from the richest hill on earth is a reminder of how out-of-state corporations can take Montana's wealth and leave poor wages, dangerous working conditions and a degraded environment.
Many of the topics focused on wildlife, land and hunting issues. Bullock appeared to step back somewhat from Schweitzer's promoting the relocation of bison from Yellowstone National Park and said an in-depth environmental analysis was first needed.
Hill went further and said the state should press the National Park Service to eradicate disease in their herd and to reduce their numbers so they don't wander out of the park.
"It doesn't make any sense to me that we would promote the idea of free-roaming bison," Hill said.
Hill said he would curb state land acquisitions if he were governor and scrutinize the land acquired under the Schweitzer administration through a priority budgeting test he said he plans to administer for all government programs.
Bullock said each acquisition must be looked at individually.
On education, Bullock took heat for not offering more specifics to his education plan and was unable to say how much he was looking to increase funding and from where the money would come.
Likewise, Hill was questioned closely on his plan to reduce property taxes by using revenue from natural resource development to pay for public education. Hill said his plan would reduce property taxes by $200 million in the first biennium, but acknowledged his proposed change alone would not increase education funding.
But that would not be the only source of education funding, he said, and cited the current budget surplus as a possibility.
Bullock said that proposal would blow through the budget surplus, without even talking about the idea of freezing tuition for university students, which Bullock supports.
At times, the candidates' exchanges were pointed. Bullock called Hill an ineffective congressman and a lobbyist and implied that Hill was partly responsible for health insurance premium raises when Hill served on several insurance company boards.
In return, Hill criticized Bullock for not joining a lawsuit with 24 other states petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency's mercury and toxicity standards, which PPL cited in announcing its closure of the Corette power plant in eastern Montana.
The candidates next meet Oct. 9 in Billings.
Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender has not been invited to participate in any of the debates so far.