By John S. Adams
When Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock was a kid, he used to deliver newspapers. The state Capitol was on the corner of his paper route.
A lot has changed in the years since young Steve the paperboy became Attorney General and now the presumptive Democratic nominee for Governor of the state he loves. Bullock says he's running for governor because he wants to make sure his children can enjoy the same opportunities he's had.
"I've really enjoyed being attorney general. I think we've been able to do some great things, be it with repeat DUIs, cracking down on sex offenders and changing the way we prosecute crimes against kids, to the prescription drug work to the Citizen's United case," Bullock said. "So I really enjoy what we have done. But I don't think it's an exaggeration to say we're at a real crossroads, and I want to make sure that my kids have the same opportunities that I had," Bullock said.
Bullock, 45, is the clear favorite among Democrats to win the gubernatorial primary in June and go on to retain party control of the governor's seat come November.
Bullock faces a primary challenge from political newcomer Heather Margolis, who has few campaign funds and little name recognition. Political analysts agree that Bullock will win the nomination and go on to face the Republican nominee in the general election.
But the outcome of the November election is less clear.
A recent survey by the Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling found Bullock -- who defeated Republican attorney general candidate Tim Fox percent in 2008 by garnering 53 percent of the vote -- in a statistical tie with former Republican Congressman Rick Hill, the GOP frontrunner.
But Bullock believes Montanans want to keep a Democrat in the office held for the past two terms by Democrat Brian Schweitzer.
Schweitzer famously battled Republicans, who held huge majorities in both legislative houses, in 2011.
"Looking at the last legislative session, people can take issues with various bills that the governor vetoed, but there were 79, and the record (number of vetoes) before that was 19," Bullock said. "A lot of what the whole discussion was, was "If you spend all your time looking in the rearview mirror the only direction you're going to go is backwards.'" Bullock said the discussion voters are having this election cycle is "How do we move Montana forward?"
"Do we just say "What we were in 1940 or 1950 is all we can ever be,' or is it a crossroads of saying if we adequately invest in education, if we invest in our two-year colleges and our universities, if we try to turn around and say, "yeah, we can responsibly develop our natural resources, but we can also look at the new places the state could go?'" Bullock said.
Bullock said as governor he would encourage economic growth, help give a boost to the state's agriculture industry, and foster responsible resource development.
"Think of the value added in agriculture. How much work are we doing to try to make sure that Montana dollars and Montana products -- we don't just ship out but we actually add value here?" Bullock said. "How much are we looking at the 100 new startups that are incubating in Bozeman, and say "That could be a great potential for where our future economy is as well.' So we're at a crossroads because it's really time to define where we want to take the state and what role public investment will play in everything from law enforcement to education."
Bullock said unlike his GOP opponents, he doesn't believe the state should drastically cut taxes. Bullock said the state is already recognized by national taxpayer groups as having one of the best tax climates in the nation. For example, the National Tax Foundation rates the state eighth overall for business tax climate and the state's local tax burden is "well below the national average." In 2010 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Montana is the top state in the nation for entrepreneurship and innovation.
"The answer to me isn't just cutting all taxes and revenues to the state, because people still want the roads paved, their kids educated," Bullock said. "But when there are opportunities, if it makes reasonable sense to cut some taxes, that would certainly be on the table."
Bullock said he would work with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to increase funding for education. Bullock pointed out that Montana is last in the nation in early childhood education funding, a problem he said he would seek to mend if elected governor.
"Ages 3 to 5 are critical for learning and Montana invests least in the nation," Bullock said.
Bullock said it's also important to invest more in higher education, including universities and two-year colleges.
Bullock said if Republicans retain control of the Legislature and a Republican ends up in the governor's office, then the state could be in for some drastic changes most Montanans wouldn't like.
"I think by the end of the first week (of the legislative session with a Republican governor) we're going to be a right-to-work state, we'll be dismantling -- not investing -- in K-12 education programs. We'll go back to cyanide heap leach mining and we'll probably be restricting public access," Bullock said. "And businesses won't want to come to Montana if we secede from the nation."