State candidates quizzed at Farm Bureau's Candidates Forum

Candidates for state auditor, state superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and the Montana Supreme Court were quizzed by the public at a Candidates Forum on Tuesday. The event was staged by the Custer Fallon Farm Bureau, and held at Miles Community College in Miles City.

Levi Forman, president of the CCFB, served as moderator.

After an informal half hour of socializing, each candidate gave a brief statement on their background and campaign. Questions were collected from audience members and these were sorted during another short break.

Forman stated that there were many more questions than the time allotted but he and other members of the Bureau selected questions, combining a few, before asking each candidate what the attendees wanted to know.

Attending were Democratic candidate for state auditor Jesse Laslovich; Democratic secretary of state candidate Monica Lindeen; Republican secretary of state candidate Cory Stapleton, Republican state auditor candidate Matt Rosendale; and Kristen Juras, non-partisan candidate for the state Supreme Court.

The candidates for state superintendent of public instruction — Democrat Melissa Romano and Republican Elsie Arntzen — also appeared, along with a trio of candidates for the state legislature. Questions posed to state legislature candidates at the forum, and their responses, were published in Wednesday’s Miles City Star.

Forman asked the Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates a multi-part question on universal pre-school for 4-year-olds and their opinion on the “upsides and downsides” of such a program, and how such a program would be paid for.

 “We’re spread really thin with K through 12,” said Republican candidate Elsie Arntzen, noting she is concerned there will not be enough qualified teachers for a pre-school program because there is currently a shortage of teachers for existing programs. While she said she sees the earlier education program as “something on the horizon, right now, it is not on my priority list.”

Romano said “I am advocating for public pre-school as an opt-in model” and noted she considers herself “an advocate for younger learners.” 

Romano, a former kindergarten teacher, said she has “seen what it looks like when (children) come in not ready to learn.” She said she felt that early intervention can help children achieve benchmarks for their age group, and said the state should “make a priority of investing in our kids.” There will be hard choices, she said, but emphasized that education should be a priority.

Candidates for Secretary of State were asked what improvements they felt could be made on the State Land Board.

Lindeen, who has served on the State Land Board in her current position as state auditor, said that while she keeps hearing that “somehow the Land Board would change if there more Republicans than Democrats” on the board, her experience has shown that the board, no matter the political make-up, generally votes unanimously and rarely has differences of opinion.

The board, she said, including herself, has voted in favor of “every oil and gas lease, every timber lease, every coal lease” that has come before the board. “I’m not sure what we would do differently.”

The board is tasked with “protecting resources and generating revenue,” she said. Money from state lands are used to pay for education in the state. The board has been selling less-productive lands and buying more profitable lands, “generating 138 percent more revenue,” she said.

Lindeen also emphasized “protecting public access for the future for a resource we all hold dear.”

Republican candidate Corey Stapleton referred to jobs being lost in Colstrip and the closing of the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls and said he felt the Land Board “set a culture for the state.” He said there would be a “huge difference between Republicans and Democrats” if the board had different membership.

“What is missing is leadership,” Stapleton stated, adding: “let’s be the Treasure State again.”

State Auditor candidates were asked how they were going to reduce insurance and healthcare costs.

Rosendale said he felt the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare,” was a “travesty and a train wreck.”

He said he wants to see more “open insurance options” and provider agreements, commonly called concierge doctors, where healthcare consumers pay a monthly or annual retainer to guarantee access to a provider. He also said he wanted people to be able to express their “religious freedoms” in their healthcare selections. He also wanted more transparency in costs of services.

Laslovich said that while there is “a lot of rhetoric about” the Affordable Care Act, there isn’t anything that can be done at the state level. The Montana Legislature rejected a state-operated exchange, forcing the state to participate in the federal exchange, “which created a lot of problems.”

He stated that “healthcare-sharing ministries“ are not insurance plans and that there are several pending consumer complaints in the auditor’s office currently against these programs. He was also not in favor of direct provider agreements “just to pay more to see the doctor.”

Laslovich also said he supports transparency and said there are cases where there is a $100,00 difference between the costs of knee replacement surgery between hospitals in Montana. If consumers could see “what the cost is prior to getting (procedures) done,” they would be more selective. He felt this would put “downward pressure” on health insurance costs.

Montana Supreme Court candidate Juras was asked how she would bring her ranching background to the court. She said she “understands issues around bison and water rights” that some judges do not. There is considerable complexity to water rights in Montana with both federal and state rights to consider but the state court adjudicates water rights cases.

She said she has spent 34 years on easement litigation and water rights, and wants to the court to consider the effect of their rulings on people.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates were asked how will they improve special education for children with disabilities.

Romano said she supports “special ed inflationary increases” for those programs. She also emphasized community partnerships to provide “wrap-around services.”

“I want kids to be successful,” she said.

Arntzen said she wants everyone “to be a productive member of the community.” She referenced possible legislation, then said that plans for special education must “not come down from the top.” She said she felt that school systems were “constrained” by funding rules and allocating resources was difficult because of “locks on that money at the local level.”

The state auditor candidates were then asked what help they would give to people with disabilities who want to start their own businesses.

 Laslovich explained that the auditor’s office was mainly concerned with regulating securities and insurance sold in the state. He does advocate for mental health parity in insurance coverage, “which is not the case under Montana law.”

Rosendale said the “biggest disservice” being done by the state auditor’s office is “blocking product lines from being offered in the state.” He felt that any product line that had “the financial ability to service that product” should be allowed to offer the product. “We should invite everybody into this state,” he said.