A fish conservationist called to serve

Incumbent takes hard stance against tax increases
“Oh my, the resort tax increase was one of the most difficult and divisive pieces of legislation I have had to deal with.” —State Sen. Jed Hinkle, representing District 32, which includes Big Sky

Back in 2005, Jed Hinkle was just out of college at Montana State University and working as a fisheries technician in Gallatin National Forest. His job: To locate and protect remnant populations of genetically pure native cutthroat trout. After trekking up a mountainside in the Grayling Creek drainage, he discovered a tiny isolated population of the fish in a tributary that didn’t have enough water to flow all the way to the bottom of the watershed. 

“It was dry at the bottom, so it was isolated and protected,” said Hinkle, noting how this cluster of native cutthroats is still used for breeding genetically pure fish. “I was responsible for finding a genetically pure strain of cutthroat that the National Park Service now uses as its main replication source.”

Back then—like those fish— Hinkle isolated himself from the flow of politics in Gallatin County, choosing instead to focus on his fisheries work while also building his skills as a taxidermist. “Pretty much everything in my life revolves around hunting and fishing. I knew nothing of the political process,” said Hinkle. 

Then on Jan. 1, 2010, his parents called him with “a crazy suggestion.” 

“They called me up and told me to run for office,” said Hinkle, who remembers praying on it before filing to run for the Montana House seat then held by Mike Phillips, a former wildlife biologist for Yellowstone National Park. 

Hinkle lost, but didn’t give up. “People kept talking in conversation saying, ‘We need good people in office.’ And every time those conversations came up, I felt a kind of conviction. I kept randomly running into people and groups of people expressing the same feeling toward politics. None of these people knew I had been asked to serve publically, but they all expressed how we need ‘good, honest and not self-serving people’ in politics.”

In 2014, Hinkle matched up against Republican Bruce Robertson in the GOP primary for Montana Senate District 32, which he won by 248 votes. He then went on to beat Democrat Franke Wilmer to become the youngest serving state senator at age 34. In Big Sky’s 64B voting precinct, Hinkle made a good showing, but lost the local vote here by 32 ballots. 

Hinkle’s ongoing fisheries work routinely brings him through Gallatin Canyon and Big Sky. He’s engaged with community members over issues like affordable housing, including the failed “1 percent for housing” campaign to raise the resort tax by a percentage point and funnel the proceeds into workforce housing. 

Looking back, Hinkle said he nicknamed this issue “the Big Sky civil war” because he heard both support and opposition to the plan coming from all directions and crossing political lines. 

In 2017, Hinkle voted against the “1 percent for housing” bill. 

“I’m not a fan of tax increases at all. One of my campaign points was lower taxes,” said Hinkle, but still his “no” vote on the housing issue “was one of the most difficult I’ve made.”

More difficult and contentious issues remain on the horizon for Montana legislators, and Hinkle is at the start of what could be a competitive race against Democrat Pat Flowers. Here’s a look at Hinkle—the person and the candidate—including specifics about how he hopes to tackle items of interest for Big Sky when the Montana Legislature reconvenes in 2019.

 

1. When first elected you
were the youngest senator in the Montana Legislature, and now you’re married. Talk about the changes in your personal life since first entering state politics.

Yes, when first elected I was the youngest senator in Montana, not only that, but on the Republican side, I was one of only two senators who did not have previous legislative experience as most had started in the House. 

Wow, I have been on a whirlwind ever since my election. They tell freshmen legislators, the first session learning curve is like drinking from a fire hose. I would contend it is like drinking from five fire hoses! My then future wife Kyndall and I started dating shortly after election day, and within a year we were married. A few months after that we built a house. Along with serving Montana, I have gone through so many life changes it has been an incredible ride!

 

2. What do you like about your work in fisheries management and conservation? Must be nice spending so much time in Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

I love spending time in our national forests. The streams and mountains of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest are practically my office. Over my 18 years of working in fish conservation, I have been practically everywhere from far southwest Montana to northeast South Dakota.

The bulk of my work is with the native westslope cutthroat trout. In the past 12 years virtually every fish conservation project has been met with my fingerprints.
I have seen first-hand how significantly small and few the cutthroat populations are on our forest and I am proud to
be involved in expansion
efforts for this species.

 

3. Talk about your legislative committee assignments and why these positions of leadership are beneficial for Big Sky.

 I serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Natural Resources Committee, and as vice-chair of the Fish and Game Committee. I am also the co-chair and founding member of the Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus.

Two committees I feel are most relevant to Big Sky are Fish and Game and Natural Resources. As vice-chair of Fish and Game, it was my responsibility to find common ground on legislation between Republicans, Democrats and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. I am proud to say the
vast majority of bills brought into our committee were passed out. Considering Big Sky is nestled in the heart of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, a close proximity to the Yellowstone National Park, and is a mecca for outdoor recreation, the work we do in this committee is incredibly relevant to its residents.

In the Natural Resources Committee, we deal with issues such as fire suppression and water quality. Big Sky has either had issues with these or may be threatened by them. I know from work and my local training in fire suppression that wildfire is one of the greatest threats to the residents of Big Sky. I can assure the residents of Big Sky that potential wildfire in this area is of top concern to suppression agencies, and will be on my mind as we deal with these issues in committee.

 

 4. Why did you express that the Big Sky housing debate felt like a “civil war”?

Oh my, the resort tax increase was one of the most difficult and divisive pieces of legislation I have had to deal with. Sitting in the middle of this issue, I had both Republicans and Democrats supporting the increase and both opposing the increase. Businesses were also both supporting and opposing the increase. It was hard to see a close-knit community divided, and difficult from my vantage because both sides had very legitimate concerns.

Throughout the course of the Big Sky housing debate, between the two sessions, I both supported and declined support as I learned new information, and residents spoke out. I am hoping we can find a solution for Big Sky that brings both sides together, and if possible, doesn’t also affect the rest of the state. I have offered my assistance to both Big Sky and West Yellowstone, and per a request have already met with West Yellowstone city officials.

 

5. How do you see healthcare issues unfolding during the 2019 legislative session and how might this debate affect residents of Big Sky?

A main issue the Legislature will have to deal with in 2019 is whether or not to renew the 2015 expansion of Medicaid. In the 2017 session, it was realized that Medicaid costs had been significantly underestimated. Last November, I contacted the Legislative Fiscal Division and was told they now believe the $86 million projected for this biennium was underestimated and the expansion might see costs well exceeding $100 million. The expansion was to be initially funded by the federal government. 

By 2020, if a renewal is to take place, Montana will then have to support 10 percent of the expanded Medicaid costs on top of its regular Medicaid costs. Considering Montana’s recent fiscal struggles, we are going to have to decide Medicaid not based on political ideologies, but rather responsibly prioritizing what state revenues can handle without causing harm to other departments and programs.

The greatest benefit to Big Sky are legislative proposals brought forth last session. These proposals were designed to actually drive down medical costs instead of just throwing more money at the problem. There were bills that required medical providers to reveal actual upfront costs of procedures to the patients and provided incentives for consumers and insurance companies to look for high quality medical procedures at the best price. This legislation would have actually worked to create competition and drive down healthcare expenses benefiting everyone. We need to continue coming forward with more innovative ideas such as these if we are going to solve the problem of Montana’s high healthcare costs.

 

6. Democrats call them “revenue streams” and Republicans call them “taxes.” How does this play into the budget and are we in for a fight over tax increases in 2019?

 Actually, Democrats have renamed “tax increases” to the much more flowery term of “revenue enhancements.” It just sounds nicer, right? Unfortunately, we are likely in for another debate over tax increases. Between the 2013 and 2015 sessions, the overall state budget grew by nearly 20 percent. However, in 2015 the Legislature left Gov. Steve Bullock with a balanced budget and $300 million in reserves. 

By the middle of 2016, most of that reserve was gone and to avoid budget cuts during his campaign, Gov. Bullock shifted money, and kept the budget barely above the mandatory budget cut threshold. When the Legislature convened, the governor dumped the problem onto our lap to fix it, and then vilified Republicans for not approving additional increases in spending, as we worked to balance the budget. To answer a $150 million shortfall, well over $260 million in tax increases were also proposed. 

The fact of the matter remains, due to the excessive growth in government from the past two sessions, Montana really has never had a revenue problem, only a spending problem. Its expenditures increased far beyond its capacity to sustain itself and it would be irresponsible to place that burden on the taxpayers, many of which are already struggling to pay their bills. 

 

7. Many notable right-leaning interest groups focused on low taxes or pro-gun stances have given your voting record high marks, while many left-leaning interest groups focused on the environment or conservation have given your record low marks. Why should conservation voters in Big Sky support you?

Rule of thumb, always score the interest group first. Interest groups are able to manipulate scores based on what legislation they decide to use, or not use, on their scoresheet and are often influenced by third-party agendas or out-of-state interests. While looking at a score, voters need to consider what the legislator actually does while in office, or why they may or may not have supported a particular piece of legislation. With every piece of legislation, you have to weigh the good and the bad, and ultimately determine which one outweighs the other. With much legislation, I may completely agree with the concept, but also there may be a component in the bill that I cannot support. 

On issues such as low taxes, gun rights or fiscal responsibility, I always do well because they are part of a core set of principles that I believe
in and I also ran on.

I look to support conservation proposals in its purest form, ones without political agendas. Due to my conservation background, and willingness to look for opportunities to work with Democrats, I was approached by the interest group—Montana Conservation Voters—and asked to carry pro renewable energy legislation. 

As I considered the bill, I saw that it was good policy for everyone. I did carry the bill, and due to my success in actually bringing both conservatives and Democrats together, I was placed on the “Honor Roll” of the Montana Conservation Voters scorecard. It was extremely valuable for them to have a Republican willing to carry legislation that probably would generally be carried by Democrats.

 

8. Does the Legislature need to do more to protect hunter/angler access in Gallatin and Madison Counties?

Yes and a legislative study was conducted revealing that 22,000 miles of access roads have been closed off to the public on public land by the Forest Service—and also with recommendations for these closures by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Many of these roads have been closed off even to foot traffic as they have been reclaimed to the extent to where they are virtually un-walkable. These decisions for closures and reduced access from FWP and the Forest Service affects Gallatin-Madison county residents significantly. 

However, here’s another item I have worked on extensively during both sessions—the issue of accessing “landlocked” pubic land throughout the state. This is public land that is in a checkerboard pattern with private land rendering it inaccessible. This is why I successfully carried legislation called the “Unlocking Public Lands Program,” which by improving relations with land owners serves to create more access points to these isolated parcels. 

I also successfully carried legislation increasing recreational opportunities on state lands. In 2017, a Montana House Republican carried a bill called the “Public Lands Access Network,” where donated funds would be used to acquire access points to these isolated public parcels. In December, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated $25,000 to this fund. 

Concerning access for angling, I will always support Montana’s stream access law!

 

9. Lone Peak High School is the pride of the Big Sky community. Can the leadership team at the Big Sky school district count on you to protect funding for public education?

Lone Peak High School is an amazing school and I was honored to have had the privilege of meeting with the high school students at the Montana Capitol for a fun time of Q&A and storytelling! 

Yes, one of the issues I ran on is adequate funding for education. With that, the two greatest threats to public education is dramatically increased government spending in other areas and a decline in natural resource revenue, such as from our state school trust lands. Every time Montana increases spending excessively, when revenues decline in the future (perhaps due to a decline in natural resource revenue) every program and department in the state becomes affected. Unfortunately, as we have recently observed, this includes education. That is why fiscal responsibility and a strong natural resource economy is imperative to protect future funding for education.

 

10. Along with fisheries conservation, you work as a taxidermist. Any interesting stories about trophies taken from around Big Sky that you had the honor to work on?

No specific stories per say, however, I always enjoy working on the big bull elk that come
in from the Taylor Fork, Buffalo Horn and the Special Buffer Zone!

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