By Michael Howell
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill was in the Bitterroot last week on a campaign junket that is taking him around the state. He stopped at the Bitterroot Star office in Stevensville to share the highlights of his political agenda with the local press.
Hill characterized his political agenda as having essentially three prongs aimed at improving the business climate in the state, revising our budgeting priorities, and reforming the state’s educational system.
“Elsewhere in the nation,” said Hill, “people see Montana as having an unstable, unpredictable business climate.” As a result, he said, businesses are hesitant to move here and investors are reluctant to put their money here. He said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks Montana as 43rd in terms of its business climate. He said the cost of Workers Compensation is high compared to surrounding states, the automobile insurance is high and Montana has the most expensive tort liability in the country. All of this, he said, discourages business development and investment.
Montana’s legal and regulatory environment contributes to the problem, according to Hill. He called it “an adversarial climate.” He said Forbes Magazine rates Montana 47th in the nation as far as good business environment is concerned.
“It takes about twice as long to get a permit for work activity in Montana than in other states,” said Hill. “It makes Montana a hard place to do business.” He said the state government should be finding business solutions rather than erecting barriers. He said that his plan was to transform the current economic development office in Helena into an economic advocacy office.
Hill said that the federal government and the U.S. Forest Service in particular contribute to the problem, creating their own hostile work environment on the forest.
“We are losing jobs, but it also hurts the health of the forest,” said Hill.
He plans on doing something about it.
“Historically the governor’s office has sat on the sidelines,” he said, “but we are going to weigh in to protect Montana’s interests.”
If elected, he said his administration would work hard on collaborating with the federal government on its resource management.
“The resource is not being properly managed,” said Hill. He said his plan would involve advocating state management of some federal lands on a trial basis. He believes the state’s timber management program has proven itself to be more efficient with better results than the federally managed lands adjacent to it and the proof is on the ground. He believes if the agency would give it a try they would find state management a good alternative. He said properly managed forest land is not only better for the economy, it’s better for wildlife by maintaining a healthier forest.
Hill said that his campaign has also developed a wolf management plan. It calls for more than one wolf license per hunter, a lower price for licenses for both in-state and out-of-state hunters, the use of trapping, including snares, and a longer hunting season. He is also proposing a single Wolf Management District for all of Western Montana.
“One thing we definitely don’t want is any wolves in northeastern Montana,” said Hill.
The second element of his campaign involves setting some new budgeting priorities.
“First off,” he said, “we need to ask, ‘What are the values we are looking to protect? ‘What are our goals? How do we reach those goals? and ‘Who is accountable for the process?’.” The aim, he said, is to reduce the size and scope of government with a result-focused approach.
The third leg of Hill’s agenda is to reform the educational system.
He said if you look at our test scores, our kids are doing fairly well, performing in the top third to 15%. On the other hand, he said, 20% of Montana kids in urban areas are not graduating. He said of those that do graduate, over 30% require remedial reading and math instruction when they enter college. He said 71% of the students’ SAT scores are deficient in one of the four key areas. He said less than half of our students are graduating from college and, of those who do, over half are taking up to six years or more to get a degree.
Hill said the state needs higher academic standards and a common set of core requirements in its 420 school districts. He said he thought the state should authorize charter schools in some areas to address the drop-out problem in public schools and that education ought to be more career oriented.
“Two things jump out at you when considering our educational system,” said Hill. “We are dead last in knowing what our kids are doing, how they are performing.” He attributed that to too many school districts with a population that is growing more transient.
“We need to track things better,” he said.”
The second thing to jump out, he said, is that “we are second to last in quality of teachers.”
He immediately clarified this by stating that it had more to do with the system than individual teachers and problems of seniority and questions of tenure need to be addressed.
“My whole agenda is embedded in the American Dream,” said Hill. “That is the dream of having more and better jobs available, a government that is affordable, and an education that will prepare us for the 23rd century.”