In the battle to represent the Bigfork area, candidates diverge on state spending, Medicaid expansion

Bigfork Eagle | October 7, 2020 3:55 AM

Three-term incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Noland is facing off against Democratic challenger Jennifer Allen in the race to represent House District 10, which includes the southern edge of Kalispell, Bigfork and Swan Lake.

Both candidates are unified when it comes to rejecting the idea of a state sales tax, but have vastly different views on the best approach to handling Medicaid expansion, CARES Act spending and determining state budget priorities.

Allen, 66, is a Philadelphia native who moved out West during high school, settling in Montana with her husband after college. A retired social worker, she is now widowed but has two grown children, Aric and Hannah.

“I have extensive experience and skills in management and supervision and in building competent and accountable programs, including working with stakeholders and gathering and analyzing data to help guide new social service policies,” Allen said.

“A lot of persons complain about government …. But very few are ready to step up to the plate,” Allen said. “I knew I had the skills and the background to be a good citizen legislator.”

Noland has 35 years of experience as a Flathead Valley business owner and three terms representing HD10, including two as chair of the Montana House Business and Labor Committee. The 61-year-old has been married for 40 years and has six children and eight grandchildren. Noland said he has a “good track record of conservative principles” and values small government and reducing taxes. He is also a strong supporter of maintaining the Flathead Valley’s clean waterways as a means of preserving property values and wants to expand mining, coal and other natural resource development to generate revenue for the state.

“We have a problem in this state where we keep raising our property taxes because there's not enough revenue coming into our state,” Noland said. “Why not use those resources until we can do better at solar and wind and other technologies?”

Along the vein of state spending habits, Noland said he’d like to see more money in the pockets of Montanans, which could be achieved by reducing the size of government so it doesn’t cost as much to operate. He said there are opportunities to improve efficiencies, like streamlining departments that have directors, executive directors and deputy directors, for example. He also stressed the importance of developing the state’s coal and mining resources in ways that don’t negatively impact the environment.

Allen wants to see the state continue to allocate money for human service programs and agencies, noting she believes there is more myth than fact in the perception that these organizations are run inefficiently.

“Part of the issue is there is a myth that human service programs have fat in them and wasted money in them … it tends to be a Republican myth that government is poorly run and agencies can't seem to make do. My work has always been in nonprofits. I know that that is almost never true. They use money efficiently.”

She went on to explain that when investments aren’t made in public health resources, the community eventually pays the price when a crisis, such as the current pandemic, hits. Allen also pointed out that before making a decision, she would gather information about the issue and testimony from stakeholders before acting.

“I really believe in data-driven decision making,” she said.

On the topic of Medicaid expansion, the HD10 candidates share some common ground in that they both agree some form of the program should exist. Allen witnessed the direct impacts of that extension when she saw her clients were able to get the medication and preventative care they needed. And while she sees “room to talk” about reforms, Allen would be hesitant to attach things like work requirements to Medicaid eligibility.

“Many attempts to attach enforcement of work requirements and other such things and those things cost money to implement, they take money away from direct services … and yet fraud and misuse is so low. We don't have evidence of that,” she explained. “I’m more than willing to talk about and get testimony from various health-care providers about other ways and more efficient ways to get health care to our community members.”

Noland opposed the Medicaid expansion bill, countering there were more people using the program than were actually qualified for it.

“There are those who abuse the system and we can do better. It needs to be done and managed properly,” he said. “We need to protect those that are most vulnerable …. There's a reason why we have it, but let’s do it responsibly.”

Responsibility was also a common theme when it came to discussing the state’s spending of its $1.25 billion Coronavius Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act dollars. Noland said the state hasn’t doled out enough of the funding in a timely manner. At seven months into the pandemic, Noland said just $200 million had been spent.

“It doesn't do us any good in the bank, we need to get it out to the folks,” he said. “We could do a much better job helping the individuals and families that are in dire need of help. Small businesses shouldn't have to go broke.”

Allen advocates for a more conservative spending approach, noting she is in favor of being “fiscally prudent” with CARES Act funding.

“I know there was some disagreement initially about whether the dollars were coming out quickly enough … but the reality is the pandemic is still here,” she explained. On Thursday alone Montana saw 429 new cases, bringing the total to 13,5000 statewide. “If anything, it’s worsening for Montana,” she added. “We don’t know how long we need to make those CARES dollars last.”

Candidates at a glance:

Jennifer Allen

Age: 66

Family: Married for 45 years to Mark; widowed one year ago when Mark passed away from cancer. Two grown children.

Occupation: Retired social worker

Background: Grew up in Philadelphia; moved to Colorado when in 10th grade; Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from University of Colorado, summa cum laude; Master's degree in social work. Career spent in the mental health and social work fields, including working in the first ever residential prison for women in Billings, as a medical social worker in hospitals, as a therapist in an Air Force mental hygiene clinic, and in community mental health centers; for almost 20 years was practitioner and then lead administrator in a large mental health crisis intervention program; participated in legislative committees and work groups to develop and implement laws that impact persons with mental illness; is a Gun Sense Candidate from Moms Demand Action.

Contact: website:

Mark Noland

Age: 61

Family: Married for 40 years, six children, eight grandchildren

Occupation: Owner of Flathead Janitorial and Rainbow Restoration

Background: Attended University of Montana for business management; 35 years as a Flathead Valley business owner; chairman of Lake County Republican Central Committee; past president of the Glacier Lions Club; precinct committeeman; Pachyderm member for 14 years; Lake County and Flathead County Poll Watcher Supervisor; three terms in the Montana House and two terms as chairman of Montana House Business and Labor Committee