May 2, 2012 7:03 PM by Laura Wilson (KAJ News)

Montana GOP candidates debate in Whitefish

WHITEFISH- Montana's GOP race for governor is gaining a lot of momentum with the primary election just over a month away and the many of the candidates stopped in Northwest Montana Wednesday to take part in the area's first local gubernatorial debate of the year.

Seven different Republican candidates are vying for Governor Brian Schweitzer's (soon to be vacant) job and on Wednesday afternoon five of those candidates attended the Politics of the PAC event in Whitefish to try and convince voters to elect them as Montana's next governor.

The debate opened up by asking each candidate to highlight their campaign's strengths and refute any weaknesses brought into question by the public.

"I was the only agency in state in the Schweitzer administration that actually reduced employees, and I reduced overtime by $9.7 million. Those aren't democrat decisions," said Jim Lynch, who was criticized for running as a Democrat in 1994 election.

"As a businessman who has run nine-figure companies around the world in very difficult places, I think I can bring the experience and the objectivity and the vision to the state of Montana that we need because we need leadership," added Neil Livingstone who has been criticized for working at the federal level more than at a local level.

"We will eliminate the business employment tax. We will eliminate the corporate income tax," said Ken Miller. "Both of those are job deterrent taxes."

"$220 million of permanent property tax relief factored in with natural resource revenue-with that, we can help rewrite the way we pay for schools," added Cory Stapleton.

For several candidates, the ability to lower property taxes goes hand-in-hand with two other key issues in the state for several of the GOP candidate; utilizing more of the state's natural resources and finding new ways to fund the education system.

"In Wyoming, they use coal tax revenues to fund education. The consequences of that is they have new schools and great schools. Local taxpayers aren't the source of funding," said former Congressman Rick Hill.

The candidates were able to find some common ground when asked if the federal government is encroaching too much on Montana's rights.

"When they wanted to close the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park for several years to rebuild it, we got a citizens group appointed by legislation you had a voice and were able to keep that road open. When they wanted to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park, we stopped them from doing that, too," said Hill.

"The EPA has a new mandate on dust! We have got to push back because that will become the new commerce clause," Livingstone added.

The GOP debate happened just in time for early voting in Montana which will begin on Monday, May 7th.

Roughly 200 people were in attendance at Wednesday's GOP debate.

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