Unlike most incoming governors who are nearly overwhelmed by the complexities of their first few months in office, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is on the move—in the legislative arena, in statewide affairs and on the national scene. Needless to say, this is giving Republican politicians a well-deserved case of the willies as Schweitzer’s dynamic leadership resonates with citizens who are tired of the excuses and finger-pointing that have overwhelmingly characterized recent Montana politics.
Last week Schweitzer grabbed headlines on both the East and West coasts after calling President Bush’s bluff on Social Security during a meeting with the National Governor’s Association. “Montana Governor Isn’t Cowed by Bush” reads the L.A. Times headline, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Schweitzer’s analogy likening Bush’s Social Security pitch to the assembled governors “to a bull auction hawking lousy studs.”
What was really going on, Schweitzer said, was more like “a magic show trick featuring a rabbit in a hat” in which Bush was distracting the nation with “wide gestures” on Social Security. “But guess what’s really happening, over in the left hand?” said Schweitzer. “We’re cutting Medicaid. We’re cutting programs in the heartland.” And indeed, Schweitzer nailed Bush’s budget, which proposes to slash federal Medicaid spending by $60 billion over the next 10 years.
Schweitzer’s national press coverage on Bush’s presidential prestidigitation apparently riled Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, the self-proclaimed “watchdog” of Montana’s new governor. Keenan, in a classic application of GOP doublespeak, wrote Schweitzer a letter calling the governor’s straightforward comments “cryptic” while urging him to support the Bush plan, which Keenan dubbed “the bipartisan redesign of Medicaid in Montana.”
Keenan was nipping at the air, however, since Schweitzer had already moved on to yet another news-grabbing move by urging the return of Montana’s 1,600 National Guard troops and fleet of Blackhawk helicopters from Iraq to battle what is widely predicted to be this summer’s ferocious, drought-driven fire season.
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe featured Schweitzer’s succinct summation of drought impacts to a meeting of Missouri River basin state, federal and tribal officials. “There’s a lot of mountains with no snow,” said Schweitzer. “This has been some time in coming and it’s probably going to be around for a little while.”
After showing up in the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and the Boston Globe in one short week, it’s no surprise that the GOP is playing defense against Schweitzer’s high-energy leadership. Unfortunately, that defense is quickly deteriorating into sad cases of sour grapes and pots calling kettles black.
This week Repubs accused Schweitzer of “intimidating” GOP legislators because he has held individual meetings with them in the governor’s office to urge support for his proposals on ethanol, wind energy and political ethics. House Republican Leader Roy Brown finds it easy to say that Schweitzer’s tactics are “not proper.” But where was this great concern for propriety when President Bush recently came to Montana—a state he declined to visit even once during the presidential campaign—to put direct pressure on Democratic Sen. Max Baucus to support his Social Security plan? If it’s okay for Bush to fly in and “intimidate” our senator to push his presidential policy agenda, why is it “out of line” for Schweitzer to “haul people into his office” to discuss his gubernatorial priorities?
Unfazed, Schweitzer remains a moving target for his critics and just announced a new plan to close tax loopholes being used by some of the largest corporations and wealthiest people in Montana. No doubt the GOP will jump on the proposal as raising taxes, but if they do, they will once again be sacrificing accuracy for politics.
In fact, Schweitzer’s new “Tax Evasion Reporting Act” targets “high net worth individuals, non-residents and large corporations” that “have increased their use of abusive tax shelters and other tax avoidance schemes to the detriment of other taxpayers and the Montana treasury.” Obviously the plan will have no effect whatsoever on the vast majority of Montanans, since it will only apply to individuals with “net worth exceeding $2 million or businesses with receipts exceeding $10 million.” Even then, it will affect only those individuals and businesses that have been aggressively employing “tax avoidance schemes” to skip out on their Montana tax obligations.
Anyone who paid their power bill this winter can understand that things have changed—and not for the better—because of the ill-fated utility deregulation enacted in 1997 by former Gov. Racicot and the Republican-controlled Legislature. While Montanans search their pockets to pay soaring utility bills, Schweitzer faces the same dilemma for the entire spectrum of state government operations. To the dismay of the GOP, his “no new taxes” pledge is resonating positively with Montanans, who are likely to view closing tax loopholes for millionaire businesses and individuals as a savvy way to raise the needed revenue.
By the Department of Revenue’s own estimates, “in 2003, 197 of Montana’s top 500 corporations by sales paid less than $500 of tax—and 49 of those paid less than that amount for five consecutive years.” What that means is that all the rest of us have been picking up the tax tab to run the state while being fleeced by the big boys. We’ve been milking the cow, but they’ve been skimming the cream. If Montana finally has a governor with the guts and brains to take on the powerful moneyed interests who would exploit the state without fulfilling their share of the responsibilities, why would Republicans, Democrats or anyone else do anything but cheer?
The answer, of course, lies in the fear that the GOP has of this fearless, straight-talking new governor. Schweitzer has always said he became governor “to do the people’s work.” By all indications, that’s just what he is accomplishing through his populist agenda. If it’s scaring the bejesus out of the Repubs, perhaps it’s because they squandered their own time in power—and produced so little for Montana.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.