Western GOP candidates talk economy, inflation

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With inflation on the rise and the challenges that brings for Montanans, candidates in the state’s new western congressional district are pitching policies on the economy and energy to voters.

With the primary heating up, former congressman and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke; former state lawmaker and statewide candidate Al Olszewski; Mary Todd, a church leader and small business owner from Kalispell; Mitch Heuer, a home builder from Whitefish; and Matt Jette, a school teacher from Missoula, are weighing in on economic issues such as inflation as well as energy policies they would support.

“What I see is that we’re seeing an increased amount of people who are paying attention,” Olszewski said at a forum last month. “They’re frustrated and angry, especially with what’s going on with the price of gas and the price of food.”

Olszewski, in tying energy prices to economic prosperity, says he would emphasize fossil fuels.

“We need to throw away or abandon this failed policy of Joe Biden’s of going all in for alternative or non-fossil (fuel) related energy,” he said in an interview. “The United States can compete globally on the nation’s stage as long as we have inexpensive energy. We can have high wages, we can have great benefits for our workers as long as we have inexpensive energy, which most of the world does not have.”

Olszewski believes alternative energy can still be pursued but should be given time to develop.

Zinke, citing long driving distances for services and goods, said high energy prices tend to affect Montanans more than other states.

“Montanans don’t make a lot of money. There’s a lot of new money coming into Montana but most of Montana is blue collar, hard-working Montanans and when the budget gets pretty thin, and that’s tough,” he said.

Zinke touted his time at Interior, which included increased oil and gas leasing on federal lands and an uptick in energy production. After resigning from the Trump administration Zinke worked in consulting, including for Conoco-Phillips. 

He favors again upping oil production to cut imports from other countries.

“The big issues are inflation and at the heart of it is the energy. And for Montana I think energy costs when it goes up, I think it hurts Montana more than certainly some of our neighbors,” Zinke said in an interview.

Zinke does identify a role for renewable energy as part of an overall strategy emphasizing domestic energy production.

“I’m not pro oil and gas versus renewable, I’m pro-American energy but it’s got to be affordable, reliable and abundant,” he said in an April radio interview on the Montana Talks program.

Jette believes the arguments for energy independence play well as political slogans, but lack important understanding of economics. Oil refineries are designed for specific types of crude oil, so while a particular refinery in the U.S. might not be able to process domestic oil, it can be traded, and Jette said that trade should be encouraged.

“If you want to be completely oil independent it doesn’t make any goddamn sense in terms of trade and a market,” he said. “You can’t just turn on a spigot and solve the problem of oil and gasoline.”

Jette also raises concerns about massive energy leasing on public lands.

“No more lease it. It’s got to be protected,” he said. “It’s not about clean energy, it’s not about climate change per se, it’s about sustainability.”

Todd, in pushing for border security, argues for “minimizing our dependence for essential goods and services on countries who do not share our values.”

“This will require reinvigorating America’s manufacturing capacity and restoring domestic production of gas and oil energy independence,” according to her campaign website.

Calling the government a “parasite,” Todd believes that government spending must be significantly reduced both in principle but also to ease inflation. 

“The only way we can get a handle on inflation is to stop government spending,” she said at a forum in Bozeman

Heuer, who touts his engineering background, also felt renewable energy is not yet ready to take over.

“I’m not a fan of shutting down all fossil fuels and pretending we’re going to go electric tomorrow — that’s just not realistic,” he said.

But Heuer also noted some success in areas such as biofuels with agriculture playing a major role, saying he would advocate for more work and research in that sector.

On the issue of inflation and the economy, America needs to “stop buying what we don’t need,” he said, and push for policies that favor exporting rather than importing.

“So I think it’s not going to be an easy solution. It’s not going to be an overnight solution unless we have another recession,” Heuer said.

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