By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Democrat Brian Schweitzer said his campaign for Montana governor will have other unusual aspects besides being the first to declare for the 2004 election.
"The days of pay to play are over," Schweitzer said during an interview this morning. "The lobbyists are no longer going to run this state."
Schweitzer, who narrowly lost a 2000 bid for the U.S. Senate to incumbent Conrad Burns, said he will accept no campaign money from special interest groups, including political parties, political action committees or corporations. His private fund-raising efforts had raised $253,197 by a report deadline last Monday.
If elected, he would be the only governor in the history of Montana, and in the country right now, who did not accept money from special interests, Schweitzer said.
The activities of lobbyists and special interest groups have hurt Montana politics, he said, polarizing people on issues when people need to work together. The 150 legislators in Helena are joined by 452 paid lobbyists who write the bills, speak on the bills and know more about the bills than most of the legislators, he said.
Schweitzer's refusal to accept contributions from special interest groups will eliminate their influence in the governor's office, and may motivate other politicians to follow suit, he said.
He said he has been traveling across the state talking to voters, and has filled about 50 pocket notebooks taking notes.
"We're getting some good ideas out in the country but I don't know what's happening when they get to Helena," he added.
He said he has heard three dominant issues: People want higher-paying jobs, affordable health insurance and better funding for education.
Schweitzer's plan to stimulate the economy, which he calls his Grow Montana Plan, has three main components.
One of them is that the state tax code needs to be completely revised, Schweitzer said. Years of actions by special interest groups have riddled the tax code with loopholes, he added. Actions in recent years have shifted the tax burden that used to be carried by 18 out-of-state corporations onto small business, property taxpayers and farmers and ranchers, he said.
Tax breaks should only be offered to companies that are providing jobs and helping the economy, Schweitzer said.
The way Montana should be stimulating the economy is by using the coal tax trust fund to invest in small business, he said.
The fund, which was never a reserve or "rainy day" fund, is used to finance the sale of bonds, which are then repaid to the fund with interest, he said. A total of 75 percent of the fund's investments now go out of Montana and more of that should be invested inside the state, Schweitzer said, providing loans and assistance to small Montana businesses.
The governor should be acting as Montana's economic ambassador, Schweitzer said, and should be spending time outside the state promoting Montana's economy, products and lifestyle, and seeking investments from businesses and venture capitalists.
Some of the economic benefits of his plan would be immediate, he said, as new businesses are created and others grow.
Schweitzer said his plan probably would not immediately make up the budget deficit the state now faces, estimated at $232 million. The Legislature is not dealing with the longterm problems, he said.
"All of the things they've talked about are Band-Aids," he said, adding that this legislative session could be summed up as "the Legislature that wouldn't, the governor that couldn't, and the only truly big idea a roll of the dice from Butte."
A proposed multimillion-dollar gambling and entertainment center in Butte recently was voted down by the Legislature.
While he hopes that actions by the Legislature might reduce the deficit in the future, Schweitzer said that until the economy grows enough to balance the budget, tax increases and program cuts will probably have to continue.
He said some programs, like Health and Human Services, should not be cut any further.
"The folks that need our help most should not be cut first," he said.
The cost of medical insurance can be reduced by grouping Montana businesses into a large pool, Schweitzer said. Instead of having a pool of 10 employees, a group of businesses could have a pool of 5,000, or 10,000 or 15,000 employees, reducing the premiums, he said.
The high cost of drugs, which was a focus of Schweitzer's Senate campaign, can be dealt with in a similar fashion, he said.
Montana can group with other states to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, Schweitzer said. Having a pool of 10 million people instead of 900,000 will allow the state to get drug prices similar to what the Veteran's Administration and Canada get, and pass those prices on to the local pharmacies ordering the drugs from the companies, he said.
Schweitzer said the state's attitude toward education, especially higher education, needs to be changed.
"I don't believe the Legislature understands that education is an investment in economic development," he said.
The increased revenue from stimulating the economy and rewriting the tax codes would provide the money for education, Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer, who was born in Havre and grew up on his parents' farm in the Judith Basin, received a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Colorado State University and a master's degree in soil sciences from Montana State University in Bozeman. He and his wife, Nancy, farm near Whitefish and east of Billings. They have three teenage children.