by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
September 24, 1998
Montanans are very concerned about jobs and agricultural issues, according to candidates for Montana's lone Congressional seat this fall.
"Ag issues come up all the time," according to Shane Hedges, who spoke for Congressman Rick Hill recently in Condon. "People are just barely surviving out there. They want to see action."
Democratic challenger Robert L. "Dusty" Deschamps from Missoula, agrees. "It's a sorry state in agriculture," he said during the recent meeting. Deschamps pointed out that agriculture prices are "at Depression levels" and that all natural resources industries in Montana are "in the toilet." Timber, he said, is the strongest sector, but still "not very good."
This year's political climate differs from past years, Hedges said. Issues like abortion and the environment "are not big on people's radar screens" he said, because of the economy in Montana. "On years when people do well (economically) we see more interest in those issues," he explained.
Republican incumbent and freshman Representative Rick Hill faces Democratic contender Robert L. "Dusty" Deschamps in the November 3 election, the top race in a year devoid of presidential, Senate, or gubanatorial races. Both candidates were represented at last week's regular meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons in Condon. Deschamps is a familiar face in the Seeley Lake area, having been the longtime Missoula County Attorney until his recent resignation. Hill is a former Helena insurance executive. Hill could not attend the meeting in person, and was represented by Shane Hedges, one of his administrative assistants.
Deschamps and Hedges fielded questions from about 20 local residents on subjects that ranged from NAFTA to Forest Service funding, to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Deschamps was critical of Hill's position on several issues, especially Hill's support of NAFTA and free trade.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, "hurt us in Montana," Deschamps said, explaining that Montana farms and timber industry businesses couldn't compete with lower priced Canadian grain and lumber.
Hedges admitted that there had been problems with NAFTA, but he defended Hill's position. "Rick is a free trader," he said. "He wants to open foreign markets."
Both Hedges and Deschamps offered ideas for improving the economy in Montana. Hedges said that in addition to an eight-point agricultural assistance plan that would benefit Montana farmers and ranchers, Hill would like to see more investment in research and technology, and also the creation of a Montana Small Business Investment Board which would develop methods for small businesses in this state to raise venture capital. He was also critical of Montana's tax code. "The burden on small businesses is too high," Hedges said.
Deschamps said he would like to see more research dollars given to the Montana University system. He said he would also support adding value to Montana products. He explained that Montana needs a "team effort" to compete for investment and research money on a national level. Montana could benefit from a group that would "fight for the whole state" he said.
The issue of Forest Service funding, or the lack of it, came up early in the meeting. Rep. Hill serves on the resources committee and the subcommittee on Forest Service issues. According to Hedges, the problem with Forest Service funding is that there is not enough to go around. The Forest Service should focus on improved forest health, he said, and make sure their money funds appropriate infrastructure.
Two other issues that received attention were funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and welfare programs, especially the minimum wage.
Rep. Hill voted against providing continued funding for the NEA. According to Hedges, Hill disagreed with "inequities" that existed within the NEA. He said most of the NEA funding is given to six major U.S. cities. "Rick's vote had everything to do with accountability for taxpayer dollars," he said.
Deschamps, on the other hand, supports NEA funding completely. "I would vote for the NEA. It's a great program. It's been great for Montana. I'm 100% for the program as it exists," he said.
Concerning the minimum wage, Deschamps favors raising it and Hill opposes an increase.
"People can't survive on the minimum wage today," Deschamps said.
Hedges countered that businesses can't afford to pay more. "Small business owners tell us that they couldn't survive if they had to pay more than the existing minimum wage," he said.
Both Hedges and Deschamps were given five minutes apiece to address their campaigns in general. Deschamps said one of the main reasons he decided to run for Congress this year was the poor economy in Montana and the fact that in spite of having an excellent education system, Montanans continue to see their young people leave the state in search of jobs. "I want to be able to pass on a better place. Montana is going to have to do a whole lot better than it is today," he said.
Hedges said that Hill's campaign this year is "a campaign about ideas." Referring to Deschamps' repeated criticism of Hill's stand on various issues, Hedges said that, "Rick's record has been terribly misrepresented."