Candidates for three statewide offices debated in Seeley Lake last night, with Election Day just over a month away. It was the second debate in the town’s community hall in the last two weeks.
After a poor turnout by politicians and voters in the first debate night, event organizers expected the second round to bring in more of a crowd. But that wasn’t quite the case.
All of the candidates showed, but they lacked much of an audience — just over a dozen people watched the debates. The event featured the contestants for several local legislative races, as well as State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and a Public Service Commission seat.
This year there are three open seats on the PSC, which regulates the state’s utilities.
Democrat Gail Gutsche is challenging incumbent Republican Bob Lake. Gutsche says she’s running on a platform to bring more renewable energy into Montana’s energy portfolio.
"We are moving into a new energy future," says Gutsche. "We are transitioning right now, and we have to be prepared for the future. And the Public Service Commission does have a say in what our portfolio looks like."
Gutsche served on the PSC once before, from 2009 to 2012.
Her opponent, Republican Bob Lake, says his outlook on this issue is one of the biggest differences in how they would serve. He says the job is about the rate payer’s bill and making sure utility companies provide affordable electricity.
"Conservation is part of all our lives," says Lake. "But we don't want to bring the bills up while we're paying somebody else not to produce. This is not conservation in anything other than making somebody feel good because we aren't using as much."
Lake says his actions on the PSC are driven by a basic business philosophy.
"Regulation of utilities, quite frankly, should not be a political seat," says Lake. "Our job is to take care of the consumer and to take care of the utility. We have that middle of the road, quasi-judicial position to take care of."
Gail Gutsche says Montana energy should not only be cost-effective, but should also come from the cleanest sources possible. She says she would have acted differently than Lake on several recent votes in the PSC.
Gutsche says, "one vote was to grant Northwestern Energy the opportunity to collect from its consumers $8.2 million due to an outage that happened at Colstrip. But that outage was due to a poor business plan on the part of Northwestern Energy, and that would have gone into rates. I disagree with that vote. There was a second vote, and that was recently used to suspend the rate for solar development in Montana. Again, perhaps that rate does need to be changed, but that needs to be done in a full-rate case and not at the request of the utility."
The winner of the PSC race will serve a four-year term.
In the State Auditor's race, Democrat Jesse Laslovich and Republican Matt Rosendale are each campaigning on platforms of past experience and both say they plan to address rising healthcare costs. The State Auditor is responsible for regulating the insurance and securities industries in Montana. The Auditor also serves as one of the state’s five Land Board members.
Rosendale says his past work as a real estate agent will serve as a valuable asset.
"The Land Board manages 5.2 million acres of school trust lands, and the revenue that is generated from those lands goes, the bulk of it, to fund our K-12 education system," says Rosendale. "We have got to have someone on board that has some background in proper land management. But I can tell you, there are sections of land around our state that are not generating any revenue because of the way they are handled."
Rosendale’s opponent, Democrat Jesse Laslovich, says his current job as legal counsel for the state Auditor gives him a familiarity with the position that will allow him to address the issue of healthcare costs.
"We should know as prospective patients for known emergency procedures what the cost is, prior to going to the hospital, rather than after the fact when we get our explanation of benefits," says Laslovich. "Why is this important? Because cost is a huge part of the skyrocketing premiums that all of us are navigating."
The other state land board race Thursday night featured Republican Elise Arntzen and Democrat Melissa Romano, seeking the job of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Both Romano and Arntzen are campaigning, in part, on plans for specific age groups in Montana's education system.
Romano says, "I will be working to provide a plan for public preschool. We have record high graduation rates in Montana right now. I think if we want to continue to see those rates increase, we need to be investing in our earlier learners."
"Let's take a look at middle school," says Arntzen. "I would like to put together a counseling initiative. If kids can reflect on who they are, then they'll want to know what they can be. And instead of it being one or two things, the sky's the limit for them."
After the statewide candidates debate, those for local races took the floor and the already small audience dwindled. Event organizer Klaus von Stutterheim says about 15 community members showed up.
"We get more people coming to the regular community council meetings," said Stutterheim. "It's a real head-scratcher."
Seeley Lake resident Carol White attended the event. She says one reason some people didn’t show up is because they’re just fed up hearing about politics.
"I think a lot of it is frustration in our country and what is going on," says White. "Maybe not our country but politics and what is going on. And having a lot of politicians bent toward the dollar sign versus being a public servant. So I just think it is a mentality, a way of thinking, the ideology that we have developed in cities, towns, states, up to the country. And I think that is why we are having such a turn out for our governmental positions. But I'm glad people are speaking up."
The Seeley Lake community hall has a maximum occupancy of 164. It didn’t even come close to filling Thursday night. Stacks of candidate flyers and business cards sat ready for voters. Campaign signs were stuck with duct tape to the wall.
The community hall was an atypical arena for a political debate, but it hosted several major movers in the future of Montana politics, and if you weren’t paying attention, you could have just plain missed it.