Incumbent Dave Fern is hoping to return to the Montana Legislature for a second term.
The Democrat is seeking re-election to House District 5. Fern has traveled the district on bicycle, knocking on doors during the campaign, and says one issue keeps coming up.
“People are so frustrated by politics, especially at the federal level,” he said. “I try to explain how we try to collaborate at the state level and create relationships with legislators.”
He says the collaborative efforts in the state Legislature need to continue, and he expects to be part of that.
“People generally think favorable of how we do business,” he said. “We have to keep the politics out of it while still advocating for what we think is important.”
Fern, 65, is the owner of a small business, Chimney Solutions and has lived in Whitefish since 1988. He got his education from the Community College of Rhode Island and Ithaca College.
He is married to wife Heather and they have three grown children.
Fern served eight terms on the Whitefish School Board, served on the Montana School Boards Association board of directors and spent seven years overseeing sports and activities for the Montana High School Association.
Fern says he has met with school superintendents and they are stressed by employee health insurance costs. He would look at ways that can be addressed.
He is also considering a study bill on the equity of vocational education across the state and how that is related to job readiness. He says it needs to be looked at whether students are being directed to attend four-year universities that would be more successful studying at vocational institutions.
“There seems to be a wage gap in the state, but then it’s also difficult to fill certain high paying jobs,” he said. “We need to have a better understanding of what’s going on.”
On K-12 education, Fern says special education is underfunded namely because of the number special education students in the state.
“That category in particular could use some funding attention,” he said.
He also says vision is missing when it comes to using regional services and also things like magnet schools, that offer special instruction and programs not offered elsewhere.
Fern is part of the Local Government Interim Committee, which passed bills dealing with affordable housing in the state. A key bill with the most potential, he says, looks at providing a state tax credit to create affordable housing.
“It’s similar to the federal program we have now,” he said. “By creating a state tax credit we could potentially double the number of affordable housing units in the state.”
He said finding funding for the program will be key, but it has broad interest from many levels in the state.
In addition, he is supportive of another bill that looks to direct a small portion of the state bed tax toward affordable housing through the Montana Board of Housing.
Failing septic tanks impacting water bodies like Whitefish Lake
Fern says a study bill that would provide in-depth analysis of the issue is a good place to start. He says the key will be looking for ways to address the issue without punishing the homeowner.
He says the issue is related to infrastructure.
“The state is full of infrastructure issues where we have a limited population and a lot of needs,” he said.
Fern said he would be willing to sponsor the study bill to keep the discussion moving forward and let legislators ask the question, “how do we resolve these issues?”
Aquatic Invasive Species
The state has made an “excellent start” in dealing with issues related to AIS.
Fern said he has heard lots of anecdotal stories about the deficiencies in the system of checking watercraft.
“I think this is one of those things you have to do at 100 percent,” he said. “It’s an economical and biological catastrophe if we don’t stay ahead of this. I’m not sure we can, but we can hopefully limit it.”
Fern said the funding for AIS prevention will be a line item in the budget for many years to come, and the fee system will have to keep up with the cost to operate.
“For the first year, we did a reasonable good job,” he said.
I-185 and Medicaid expansion
Fern says in retrospect he would have preferred that I-185 deal with the tobacco tax and Medicaid expansion separately.
“I support the increase tax on nicotine delivery systems,” he said. “I support the availability of insurance for those eligible for Medicaid renewal. I support the state in having flexible rule making to deal with the implementation of Medicaid renewal.”
Fern said the state should renew Medicaid. He supports reasonable rules to encourage Medicaid recipients to increase their earning potential, but he does not support punitive actions that would punish low-income Montanans. “I will vote for I-185,” he said. “But it’s not a prefect initiative.”
Fern says restoring services to the neediest citizens that came as a result of budget cuts in 2017 is a top issue facing the state. He says restoring services is a priority for services that fall under the authority of the Department of Public Health & Human Services, which includes Child Protective Services, foster care, services for the elderly and disabled, among others services.
“I haven’t got a solution, but the cuts we made had an impact to the most vulnerable part of the population,” he said. “We need to look at how to get resources and services back.”
Fern says he also remains a “critical friend of the agency” asking questions about how services can be improved.
“As a state issue that’s right at the top,” he said. “All legislators have to pay attention to that and probably lower the political rhetoric and try to look forward to how the services can be provided.”
On a related matter, Fern says the state is lacking the facilities to assist those with drug and alcohol addiction. While he says he is unsure of the solution, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“That is something we have to come to grips with,” he said. “Meaning the number of beds in the state that deal with serious addiction and mental health issues are lacking.”
In addition, Fern said he is interested in seeing a local option sales tax be implemented.
He is also looking at the potential for a revision to the population cap for the resort tax.
“We want to make sure that Whitefish isn’t growing too fast and we don’t want to grow out of the resort tax,” he said.