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One thing we can agree on in these difficult times is that our future won’t look at all like our past. From Depression-era unemployment levels, a failed federal government response to our national health crisis to schools, to deep economic pain, we’re facing big challenges.

The good news in this turmoil is that we are in an election cycle and can elect smart, capable leaders who will navigate us to better times. No one can predict our future, but we can come together and put in place elected folks who are committed to developing solutions. As Winston Churchill once said, “The future though imminent is obscure.”

For over a decade we have been governed by sending party faithful to elected office with their promise to be followers and not buck the party. “Disloyal” is pinned to anyone who steps outside the party position. Disloyal to the party, not disloyal to the citizens. These followers have little ability and no chance to manage our challenges unless and until their party decides it is OK for them to change. Going forward, this is a recipe for disaster in a fast-moving national pandemic and its effects.

We can already see followers reciting party lines with little thought or ability to bring fresh solutions for big problems. Some legislators have called for furloughing state workers when economists tell us to keep as many people working or as protected as possible. The futurist Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality, to change something, build a new model.” The time to build new models is now.

We can agree that there are at least three big challenges that newly elected state leaders will have to tackle. First, with a national government missing in action, the states have been left to put in place a patchwork of testing and public health programs, purchase supplies for testing and protection of health care workers and provide aid to cities and counties. Rural health care was sparse to nonexistent before the pandemic. Medicaid expansion is now critical to help protect the unemployed and underemployed.

Second, our education system that we all grew up with is in peril. No one – parent, teacher or administrator believes that distance learning is acceptable, but all are trapped in a no-win position of putting teachers and students at great risk by returning to the classrooms. What model should we adopt? Distance learning depends on the internet. Large parts of our state have either poor or no internet – assuming families could even afford internet if available. Will our elected leaders develop solutions and new models?

The third big challenge is restarting the state’s economy, developing a modern tax code that matches business activity and providing a path for employment to the thousands of people without work. It’s hard accepting this dire picture with Bozeman and Big Sky full of out-of-town visitors, construction everywhere and Main Street looking busy. But peak behind the curtain and find our social services, food bank and state employment offices stretched to the breaking point. The many airline flights and private jets zooming overhead made it hard to accept the historic drop in our economy.

While we’re electing future leaders, let’s not overlook our chance to have a functioning Public Service Commission with smart leaders willing to address future energy needs. The commission has been a retirement home for party faithful – at least those who can stay awake during public meetings –and has kept our state far behind in developing a future focused approach.

Here’s an Abraham Lincoln quote for all the candidates: “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.” Let’s leave the followers at home and pick future leaders.

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Joe McCarty lives in Bozeman. He serves on the board of Headwaters Economics and the Montana Conservation Corps.