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Less than two weeks before primary election voting begins, Montana’s Republican candidates for U.S. Senate are getting a little prickly with one another.

At a Billings forum Tuesday, Republican Russ Fagg accused opponent and current State Auditor Matt Rosendale of campaigning on public dollars. The accusation came as Rosendale touted his bonafides as budget-cutting and fiscally conservative.

“I was the only elected state official to decline a statutory pay increase last July,” Rosendale told a crowd of Republican’s gathered for the forum at the Elks Lodge. “No one else did. That’s on the record. That’s what a leader does when you see that state revenue is going off of the table and it’s declining. You say ‘I’m not going to take a raise,’ because guess what? That’s how you run a business.”

Fagg, a former District Judge in Yellowstone County, was having none of it. The question of the moment was whether more tax reform was needed following the December 2017 passage of President Donald Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” Rosendale’s point was that excessive spending, not insufficient tax collections was the government’s problem. Rosendale is currently on a 19-city “Invest in Montana” tour the auditor says is an official business trip.

“You talk about reducing spending and yet you’re in the middle of a 19-city tour using state slush funds. I just find that unconscionable, during a campaign,” Fagg said. “In fact tomorrow, Matt and his entourage are going to be in Billings. I’m kind of curious who paid for the hotel? Who paid for the meals? Who paid for all the things that go along with that and why didn’t you do it last year, or next year when we’re not in the middle of a campaign? It sounds like swamp like activity to me. It’s very concerning to me and it's just one more thing that Democrats are going to hang on, Matt.”

Rosendale said the tour is about promoting capital formation. The trip is paid for by the Investor Protection Fund, which relies on fees collected from securities businesses, Rosendale said. There are no tax dollars involved.

“Well let me just say, that sure sounds like a state slush fund to me,” Fagg said.

It wasn’t the first time Fagg has accused Rosendale of piggybacking campaign functions like the Tuesday forum on Auditors business trips. If Republicans elect Rosendale in the spring primary, Rosendale will be attacked by Democratic defenders of incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for the tour, Fagg said.

On issues from taxation to health care and gun rights, the candidates, Fagg, Rosendale, Al Olszewski and Troy Downing, generally agreed, but there were differences, namely about President Trump’s threatened trade war with China.

President Trump has ordered tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel to bolster U.S. production. China has threatened to retaliate with a 25 percent tariff on 103 U.S. products, including wheat and beef, both key Montana commodities. Montana farmers sold roughly $65 million of hard red spring wheat to China last year.

Fagg said he couldn’t support Trump’s tariff’s if they hurt Montana’s agricultural economy.

“I’m extremely concerned about tariffs. I think they could lead to a trade war and that could be extremely detrimental to the driving force of Montana’s economy,” Fagg said. Montana agriculture does $3 billion to $5 billion in sales annually.

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Rosendale said Trump was doing the right thing on trade.

“What I’m glad to see is that President Trump is finally using a big stick,” Rosendale said. “Who would have thought six months ago that the president as going to be sitting down with North Korea. National media said we were going to be at war by now. Our President knows how to negotiate.”

Al Olszewski said farmers were right to be nervous as trade talks played out like a wild west gunfight in an old-timey saloon.

“We’re in the saloon. We got Trump. He’s talking tough with China,” said Olszewski, a Kalispell doctor and state legislator. “They both got their hands on their tariff pistol and you know what? All of us should be concerned and all of us should be paying attention. What our goal is, that by them talking tough, they’re going to finish out their negotiations and we’re going to end up at the bar drinking whiskey. And it will be good for Montana.”

Downing said the bigger issue was American farmers no longer producing food, something that concerns him.

“As a combat veteran, I think about national security a lot. And we need to continue producing food and that’s of paramount importance. If we stop producing food we put the whole country at risk,” Downing said. “Obviously no one wants to get in a trade war. That’s going to hurt everything. We need to have fair trade. We need to make sure we’re dealing with other countries in a fair way.”

Downing said career politicians over regulating agriculture was also a major concern of his.

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