The big news in Montana politics this week is that the Republicans finally found someone to run against Governor Brian Schweitzer. Roy Brown, a Billings state senator and retired oil man announced his candidacy on Monday and said he expects to raise $1.6 million for the race. If he does, maybe, just maybe, he can manage to give Schweitzer a run. But in the end, Montanans may well want to carefully consider where either candidate would likely lead the state.
No newcomer to politics, Roy Brown spent four terms in the House of Representatives before he moved to the Senate last year in a hotly contested race. What he did in his time in the House, however, may give Montanans some idea of who this guy is, where he’s coming from on major issues, and just what he considers an appropriate path for the state.
Employing one of the oldest Republican political ploys, Brown painted himself a fiscal conservative and jumped on Schweitzer for his big budget, saying “state spending is out of control.” In and of itself, Brown’s criticism on this particular point is not off the mark. Schweitzer’s budget was big, far bigger than his predecessors and certainly big enough to raise questions about the hundreds of new state positions created, the millions in new building projects, and the ability of the state’s taxpayers to sustain such spending levels into the future.
Unlike Schweitzer’s one-time tax rebate, which was arguably a campaign ploy, it’s not so easy to de-fund bureaucracies once people have jobs. Nor will those new state buildings simply sit there. Besides the initial outlay for construction, every brick and mortar project creates a continuing funding need for maintenance, utilities, and upgrades. And like it or not, those fiscal responsibilities become the burden of future taxpayers, whether the state has a tax surplus or whether we’re on the ropes. What is almost a certainty, however, is that those costs are rising rapidly and are likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
But what really raises questions about Brown’s fiscal conservatism is an issue currently before Montanans—the shortfall of the Workers Compensation Old Fund. Brown wasn’t in the legislature when it split the Old Fund—and its millions in unfunded liabilities—from the on-going workers compensation program. To make a long story short, the legislature decided to levy new taxes on businesses and individuals specifically targeted to the Old Fund so it could meet future expected payouts.
About a decade later, in 2003, Brown was in the legislature and serving as the Majority Leader of the House Republicans. As most Montanans know, there were a lot of mistakes made by the Republican majorities in those dark days and one of those mistakes was the decision to rip off some $23 million from the Old Fund to balance the budget during the fiscal crisis created by Republican policy blunders.
The wheel has gone round a few times since then and now the 2009 legislative session is expected to find the millions needed to backfill the Old Fund for Brown’s short-sighted rip-off in ’03. If that’s Brown’s idea of “fiscal responsibility”—shifting the debt burden into the future—Montana can probably get along without him in the Governor’s office.
But what may be a greater concern to Montana’s future is that both Brown and Schweitzer seem intent on turning our state into an energy colony for the nation. Brown is an ex-oil man and throughout his legislative career has been a steadfast friend of the extractive industries, supporting the tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks that routinely passed the Republican-controlled legislature.
Schweitzer, meanwhile, has surprised many by his almost single-minded pursuit of energy development in the state. While campaigning, he once told a large crowd of conservationists that the real wealth of Montana was the land, not what lay beneath it. As anyone who has watched his performance over the last three years can readily attest, however, that applause line hasn’t been used in a long time.
Nowadays Schweitzer is all about export energy production. Coal to liquids for the military, vampire wires to Las Vegas, pipelines to the Midwest, you name it, he’s pushing it. In a recent article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Schweitzer proclaimed: “I want to continue to develop energy projects. I want transmission lines, I want pipelines, I want coal gasification, I want wind power, I want solar power.” If you didn’t know better, one might think that quote came from former Governor Judy Martz, the infamous “lap-dog of industry.”
Given that Montana already produces about twice the electricity we use, one might sensibly wonder why the big push for all this export energy development. And with these two guys running for governor, it may well turn into a contest to see who is willing to sell off more of Montana to out-of-state interests, to fill grotesque out-of-state energy appetites, and to provide more tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory streamlining to the energy industry.
If this seems incredible, consider this: Schweitzer already stuffed through a full package of tax breaks for energy corporations under the rubric of “clean and green.” But producers only have to capture about two-thirds of their carbon emissions to qualify, so “clean and green” is a myth. Same goes for the tax breaks for new transmission lines, since there is no filter than can determine whether a given electron came from wind or coal, and most of the new energy production proposed for the state comes from coal.
Does Montana have more pressing needs than a debate about who will ramp up energy production the most? You bet it does. Could we use some attention to the problems rampant growth is causing in land, air, and water quality? Yep, we sure could. Instead, when these two face off, we’re likely to hear who can best turn us into an energy colony—and that’s a losing path for all of us.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.