In one of the most expensive communities in the state, the three Democratic primary candidates for the new US House seat in western Montana each tried to convince voters that they would be the best choice to meet the high cost of living in a fast-paced state.
With two and a half weeks to go before the primary election, the candidates faced off in a forum hosted by Gallatin County Democrats and answered questions on a wide range of topics from moderator Mike Wheat. Wheat is a former state Supreme Court justice and was a Democratic lawmaker representing Bozeman.
The primary is between Cora Neumann, a Bozeman nonprofit leader who has focused on public health issues; Monica Tranel, a Missoula attorney with experience in the energy and natural resources sectors; and Tom Winter, a former Missoula state legislator who is working to expand broadband access.
In response to a question about how the candidates would tackle inflation, Neumann said she would work to bring manufacturing jobs back to Montana and the United States.
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The consumer price index rose 8.5% in March, marking a 40-year high, and fell only slightly in April to 8.3%.
“I have seen how manufacturing and production in our country has deteriorated in my lifetime. It has to be a top priority,” Neumann said. “We’re making sure we have more American businesses in Montana businesses employing Montana and American families.”
She also said there was a need to fight price hikes, which she said happens not only with oil and gas prices, but also with prescription drugs and groceries.
Tranel pointed out that several major oil companies had recently posted record profits, which she said needed examination.
“We are all paying higher prices at the gas pump and these global companies are making record profits. What’s going on?” Tranel said.
Tranel also said the pandemic caused a “Slinky” effect where the economy was frozen and then restarted, resulting in overheating. She pointed to the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as a start to solving the problem, but told Congress she would like to see price controls.
“We’ve done them before in the United States when we had an economy that was frozen and restarted very quickly, so we know how it works,” Tranel said. “We can do them.”
Tranel also called for reviewing the tariffs put in place and remaining from the Trump administration.
“Some of them are still hanging around there. They’re not working as expected,” Tranel said. She also said imposing higher taxes on the very wealthy was a step she would take if elected.
Winter said he would support the Windfall Petroleum Profits Tax Act recently introduced in Congress to tax large importers or extractors of taxable crude and make payments to individual taxpayers.
“The money that is charged, I would say unfairly, to Americans specifically at the gas pump will then be funneled back to middle class and working class families through a windfall tax. It was done before we could start again,” Winter said.
He also pointed to the crisis caused by a lack of availability of infant formula, saying that for decades the government has been unable to rein in businesses, leading to price hikes for products in short supply.
“We now have an infant formula crisis at a time when some of the prices for raising a child are the highest possible,” Winter said. “We need to rein in business in general, not just windfall taxes, but make sure we break monopolies on behalf of the people.”
In a city with one of the state’s flagship universities, applicants were also asked how they would reduce the rising cost of higher education.
Winter called student loan debt a “generational tax on young people imposed by wealthy and often powerful older interests.”
“I support ending and canceling student debt and reforming the system that has someone graduating from college on a mortgage before they can buy a house,” Winter said.
Winter said student loan debt is forcing his generation to have kids later and not get involved in things like public service because they’re saddled with massive loan repayments for “a debt that we don’t deserve.”
Neumann began her response by saying that not everyone is cut out for college and that she supports increased union apprenticeships as well as free community colleges in Montana.
Regarding the debt, she said she supports forgiveness for public servants.
“One of my pillars that I hope to take forward from Congress is to make sure that our teachers, our nurses, and those in our state’s civil service can afford to live here,” Neumann said. “We need to recruit and retain health workers, mental health workers, teachers and … the cornerstone of making sure this can happen is debt cancellation and housing assistance.”
She also said she would like to increase the opportunities for Pell Grants.
Tranel said she supports targeted relief.
“(It’s) making sure it goes to the people and the communities (and) the families that need it, so we’re helping our working class families live in the communities where they work,” Tranel said. . “Teachers should be able to live in Bozeman, so I support Targeted Aid that provides our resources (to) people in their communities.”
Tranel criticized policies that she said increased the cost of college by making it profit-oriented and said these must be reversed. She said two-year schools like Gallatin College, the approved but unfunded Bitterroot Valley Community College, and MSU-Northern in Le Havre are campuses that meet or would meet the needs of their communities at a cost students can afford.
“Funding all of this is a priority for me,” Tranel said.
The primary election is June 7. Ballots have already been posted to votes on the absentee list, and those who did not receive them but expected to receive them should check with their local elections office.
Montanans can register to vote until noon on June 6.