Tax and budget priorities created the sharpest contrasts in Tuesday night's debate between gubernatorial candidates Steve Bullock and Rick Hill, as Bullock derided Hill's property tax cut plan as a "shell game" that would leave government short on needed revenue for schools and other priorities.
Hill, the Republican former congressman, fired back by saying that Bullock, the Democratic attorney general, merely wants to take the state's multimillion-dollar surplus and "spend it on more government."
"I'm saying this is your money, and it ought to come back to you, and it ought to come back to you in the form of property tax relief," Hill said.
The two candidates for governor also displayed stark differences on medical marijuana and abortion, as they sparred in perhaps their liveliest debate of the campaign season.
Hill, Bullock and Libertarian Ron Vandevender, who wasn't invited to the event, are running for Montana's open governor's seat, as incumbent Democrat Brian Schweitzer can't run for re-election because of term limits.
Bullock and Hill squared off Tuesday night before about 400 people at the Petro Theater on the Montana State University-Billings campus, in their third public debate of the campaign season.
They'll also debate Wednesday in Missoula, broadcast statewide on MontanaPBS. It will be their first televised debate.
In Billings on Tuesday night, Bullock took after Hill's tax-cutting proposals, noting the Republican has proposed eliminating property taxes on business equipment, lowering income tax rates on capital gains and cutting other property taxes across the board -- the latter bankrolled by a transfer of oil-and-gas production revenue.
Bullock said the tax cuts "burn through our surplus 1 1/2 times without making any investments" in vital programs, such as schools or freezing tuition for the university system.
"You're not creating new revenue," he said. "You can't make money out of thin air."
Hill said his plan would take oil-and-gas revenue and dedicate it to schools, so the state can make across-the-board cuts to property taxes that now fund schools, granting reductions to "every landowner, every small-business owner."
The state has a current, permanent surplus of nearly $270 million, Hill said, that also can help pay for tax reductions.
"There is plenty of revenue to do it," he said. "The question is, will you use it to expand government, or lower taxes?"
Bullock called Hill's plan a "shell game of moving money from one place to the other," and not providing any additional funds for schools. Hill said as oil-and-gas revenue grows, more money will be available for schools.
The two men also laid out their budget priorities for the 2013 Legislature. Hill mentioned his tax plan, improving eastern Montana infrastructure to help oil-and-gas development and funding for education, including reforms that would reward teachers and schools that produce better-educated students.
Bullock said he would offer his one-time, $400 rebate for homeowners, eliminate the property tax on business equipment for small businesses, freeze college tuition, increase funding for public schools, propose a bill for public building projects and increase public employee pay.
On medical marijuana, Bullock said he would vote to repeal a law passed by the 2011 Legislature to crack down on medical marijuana growers and consumers in Montana, while Hill said he supports the new restrictions. The law is before voters on Nov. 6.
Hill said Bullock showed no leadership on reforming the medical marijuana law in 2010, when the number of marijuana users skyrocketed, and that he apparently supports bringing back "industrial growing operations" that existed in places like Helena.
Bullock called Hill's allegation "categorically untrue," and said he had supported a better reform bill that Republican lawmakers rejected last year.
When asked how his anti-abortion stance might affect his decisions as governor, Hill said he can't overturn court decisions allowing abortion, but that he would support proposals such as requiring minors' parents to be notified before getting an abortion.
Hill said Bullock, who favors abortion rights, is against the notification proposal and opposed a ban on "partial-birth abortions."
"Steve is the person who's out of the mainstream here, not me," Hill said.
Bullock said women, their families and their physicians should make decisions about abortions and health, and criticized Republican efforts at the 2011 Legislature to cut off federal funds for family planning and other reproductive health services at Planned Parenthood and other clinics.
The candidates also spoke generally in favor of oil, gas and coal development, although Hill said he "strongly, passionately support(s) coal development," and that he would work with neighboring states to ensure that ports are developed in the Northwestern to export coal to Asia.
The debate was sponsored by the Billings Gazette and MSU-Billings. Vandevender was not invited because he didn't have at least 5 percent support from voters in a September Lee Newspapers poll of Montanans.
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