Your vote, your voice, our future: the power of the voter in 2016 debate recap

On Monday, a mere 24 hours before this year’s election, Republican and Democrat representatives met in the Union Market where they discussed and defended various issues prevalent to this election cycle. The panel included four students, two Democrats, two Republicans and a guest speaker on each side. The panel was moderated by MSU political science professor David Parker.

The College Republicans, Melodee Wines and Matt Pitzer, and the guest speaker, Joe Balyeat touched on issues like state control of public lands, job creation, inefficiencies of government, “Obama’s war on coal,” state funding at MSU and medical marijuana. The College Democrats, Taylor Blossom and Anne Lynam, and guest speaker Robert Hawks were asked about the logistics of Governor Bullock’s spending plans, the rift between the governor and Montana’s Republican Congress, free college tuition, renewable energy and medical marijuana. Balyeat and Hawks are both former members of Montana’s State Senate.

Balyeat began the debate with the Republicans thoughts on federal versus state divestiture of public lands. Balyeat claimed that the federal government has stopped honoring their agreement to divest in public lands, and therefore the state would do a better job, although Pitzer added that Montana would still rely on federal funding. Hawks rebutted with a claim that if states managed public lands it would become political, and Lynam claimed that public lands are a large economic asset.

Parker then moved onto Gianforte’s inaccurate claim that Montana is 49th in wages (a statistic debunked by Parker), and asked what level of trust voters should be placing in his claim that his business experience would improve Montana’s economy. Pitzer cited Gianforte’s business acumen, including RightNow Technologies, as reason to trust him, “we need someone who has [created jobs] before, and will do so again,” he said. Balyeat brought up the Republican philosophy that lower taxes and less regulation will lead to job creation before the moderator shifted the focus to Gianforte’s opposition of the non-discrimination ordinance last year in Bozeman. Pitzer began by saying that Gianforte’s opposition is rooted in his deep Christian beliefs which will not prevent him from creating jobs. Balyeat and Wines added their belief that individuals can work out such issues on their own, without government interference.

Turning to the Democrats, Parker asked how they propose to “arrest the declining revenues” when paying for Governor Bullock’s extensive proposals, including free preschool. Hawks positioned the government not as a direct creator of jobs, but as a  positive influence so the private sphere can produce jobs. He spoke of Bullock’s Department of Commerce which “are creating an image in this state that we are ready for business and organized.” Blossom added that Democrats believe when the government subsidizes things like education, lower income families can then invest back into the economy at a higher rate. However when pressed, Hawks admitted that the state government is in a “tight spot” and they’d have to consider opening up local option taxes for growing communities.

Parker asked the Republicans for an example of a regulation that costs jobs, considering Montana is ranked number one on Kauffman Index of Growth Entrepreneurship. Balyeat cited the Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of responsiveness, which leads to giving up on projects all together, and North versus South Korea’s lights at night. Balyeat said “the only light visible in North Korea is the government, while South Korea is ablaze with economic activity.” Hawks protested Balyeat’s perceived comparison of Democratic philosophy to communism, in one of the more heated moments of the debate.

After touching briefly on the efficiency of having a Democrat governor working with a Republican congress, the panel turned to coal: more specifically, “Obama’s war on coal,” as Parker phrased it, and Montana’s transition to renewable energy. Republican’s went first, defending their candidates tendency to focus much of their energy on Colstrip despite the decline in the industry since the Reagan era. Both Pitzer and Wines touched on the great loss of jobs if Colstrip closed, and how those currently employed “can’t retrain into these high-tech jobs that they’re not ready for” according to Pitzer. Balyeat believes that if the government would “stop picking winners and losers” the market would naturally phase out coal as an energy source. On the other hand, the Democrats aren’t willing to entirely denounce coal. Blossom, speaking on behalf of MSU College Democrats, believes that Montana should be moving away from coal and creating sustainable energy jobs. Lynam added that there needs to be a “transition period where we’re using both coal and renewable energy.”

Two issues of interest, especially to MSU students were saved until the end: college tuition and the legalization of medical marijuana. Concerning the correlation between cuts in state funding and an increase in tuition, Balyeat exclaimed “there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody has to pay… and it’s going to be you who graduate from college and become a part of the workforce.” Parker asked the Republicans to pledge their dedication to keeping tuition low for Montana students, to which they replied they would be good stewards of taxpayer funds and create higher paying jobs. The Democrats were asked about free college tuition, to which Pitzer replied that they wanted to continue the tuition freeze, but did not specify whether they supported free college tuition. Concerning medical marijuana, Balyeat called medical marijuana simply a “straw man” for eventual legalization, and Wines spoke of various alternatives to medical marijuana, a “gateway drug.” Blossom responded with the benefits of taxing a drug like marijuana, and spoke of the regulations in place.

Both sides ended on a positive note, encouraging students to stay up to date with bills going to the legislature and to stay engaged. Hawks encouraged the College Democrats and Republicans to join together for a social, but more importantly, encouraged college students attending the debate to just “take a break” from politics for a period of time after the election. Adriana Leal, a political science student, engaged in the debate for many reasons, “I’m an out of state student, so I don’t know a whole lot about local politics. I thought it’d be a good moderation forum to become aware of things.” Parker ended the debate with a quote from one of Richard Nixon’s campaign ads: “Vote like your world depends upon it.” Parker continued, “I think the world we want to live in is at stake in any election, so Montana has to decide what the Last Best Place needs to look like.”

The head republican speaker Joe Balyeat touches on on of the main topics of the debate, land usage in Montana.  Photo by Chris Sandison
The head republican speaker Joe Balyeat touches on on of the main topics of the debate, land usage in Montana.
Photo by Chris Sandison