By Richard Hanners
A two-term Congressman who rose from humble beginnings, Montana gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill is the current front-runner in the six-way race in the Republican primary. The 64-year-old retired insurance company executive from Helena is no stranger to state politics.
After successfully turning around the Montana Republican Party as its state chairman in the early 1990s, Hill is credited with resolving a $500 million deficit in the Workers Compensation Fund after then-Gov. Marc Racicot asked him to help. Following his election to the U.S. House in 1996, Hill helped Montana acquire the huge Otter Creek coal tracts, and he played a role in rejecting a federal proposal to close down Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road for five years while it underwent reconstruction.
Jon Sonju, the state senator from Kalispell, is Hill's running mate for lieutenant governor. Sonju, 36, has been in the state legislature since 2004 and helps run the family business, Sonju Industrial.
Hill offers up three main planks to his campaign platform -- unleashing the economy to create more better-paying jobs, changing how the state establishes its budget, and improving public education.
He cites the same statistics he says out-of-state companies look at -- Montana is ranked 43rd by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; its regulatory environment is ranked 47th by Forbes; it has the most expensive business liability costs according to the Pacific Research Institute; and it's 49th in wages and salaries. To improve the state's business-friendly image, tax code and regulatory challenges and an unstable legal climate must be addressed, he says.
"It takes too long to get things done," he said. "Solving this will take a complex legislative effort, and I think I'm the best person to get this done as governor."
Hill says he doesn't support subsidies as a way to attract businesses to Montana.
"I believe in free markets, competition and free enterprise, not crony capitalism," he said. "We need a climate where businesses can grow on their own."
Pointing to 1,600 new state government jobs created over the past 7 1/2 years, Hill wants to shrink state government. He also wants to address state and teacher pension plans, which he calls unsustainable.
"It's not fair that taxpayers have to provide a better pension plan for government workers than they have for themselves," he said, suggesting the need to "tinker with retirement ages, compensation amounts, contributions, cost-of-living adjustments and abuses such as "income spiking.'"
Hill wants to bring strategic planning to the state's budget process with what he calls "priority budgeting." He says Billings and other states are using this approach, and Montana needs to "build a model of accountability."
"The legislative and executive branches need to sit down and examine every part of government," he said. "We need to ask what are we trying to do and how will we achieve that end. Then we need to set up a means to measure success and set priorities based on that."
Concerned about Montana's high drop-out rate, Hill wants to invest in the state's public school system by using wealth generated by developing the state's natural resources.
"Our primary and secondary schools have a mixed record," he said. "We do reasonably well on test statistics, but 20 percent of our high school students are not graduating, and 30 percent of graduates need remedial training when they get to college."
He says the Montana Office of Public Instruction has evolved into a "compliance agency" instead of helping schools. He wants to give public schools more flexibility while being more accountable and focus more on students, with support for teaching a basic core curriculum. He'd also like to move away from a pay system based on steps and lanes to a merit pay system, where the best teachers are rewarded. He said he might support a tax credit for children who go to private schools.
"The Montana Constitution guarantees Montanans a free, quality education, and as governor I would need to fulfill that obligation, but we need more freedom for schools," he said.