By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana's governor pledged Thursday during the annual meeting of Bear Paw Development Corp. to make things happen to benefit the state and the area where he was born.
"I will help you close that deal," said Schweitzer, who was born in the old Sacred Heart Hospital in Havre.
Schweitzer outlined several proposals to try to stimulate the economy in the eastern part of the state. He said states that are successful at attracting new businesses and expanding the economy have a common thread - a governor who is willing to go out and close deals.
"I will do that," he added.
To emphasize that point, he had his new director of the Department of Commerce, former Havreite Tony Preite, repeat what Schweitzer asks him every day.
"Have you closed the deal today?" Preite replied.
Schweitzer said he plans to visit every courthouse in the state. He wanted to start with the one in the town where he was born.
"It's great to be back in my birthplace," Schweitzer said.
He told the crowd that earlier in the day he had picked up copies of his birth certificate and those of his parents, the former Kathleen Helen McKernan of Big Sandy and Adam Schweitzer of Goldstone, north of Rudyard.
He said one of his focuses will be on rehabilitating the St. Mary Diversion, estimated to cost close to $100 million. The series of siphons and canals on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation supplies most of the water in the Milk River each year.
His administration has proposed a $10 million bond issue for the project.
"But it's not enough," Schweitzer said.
He said one of the first things he did when he took office was tell the three members of Montana's congressional delegation, "We're going to move some poker chips to the center of the table and we expect the federal government to match that."
He said he also used the St. Mary Diversion as a bargaining chip in a meeting of the seven governors whose states are part of the Missouri River Compact, which governs releases and use of the water of the Missouri River.
During that meeting, he said he would support an $82 million federal appropriation to help areas that are suffering because of low water in the Missouri River if the group would back $90 million to repair the diversion. The result would be more water for the Missouri, he told them.
"If you could bring us $90 million, we can bring half of a river in Alberta to Montana," Schweitzer said he told the group.
Schweitzer noted that some parts of Montana have a thriving economy. If the region in "the cowboy boot of Montana," including Kalispell, Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings, were a separate state, it would have the fastest growing economy in the country, he said.
Trying to find ways to stimulate the economy in the rest of the state is his goal, Schweitzer said.
He said he is meeting daily with Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, and Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, about their bills to require gasoline in Montana to include ethanol.
"We will pass this ethanol bill and Bob Bergren is right in the middle of it," Schweitzer said.
He also said he had "put down a marker" on the issue of widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes, although it could take time.
Schweitzer said he met with Gov. John Hoeven of North Dakota, which has nearly completed widening Highway 2 to four lanes across the state.
North Dakota has had strong congressional support for its project to widen the highway, Schweitzer said.
"We have every intention to provide the same climate to bring a four-lane highway to the Hi-Line," Schweitzer said.
His office is working to reverse a trend of cutting funds to promote Made in Montana and other programs to promote products made in the state.
Schweitzer said he will fund the promotion with $500,000 this year.
He added that Montana can't raise wheat or cattle as cheaply as some other countries in the world, but it has a reputation that will sell products.
"We have a remarkable reputation around the world of raising a wholesome product," Schweitzer said. " We will promote your products all over the world."
He also said his office is working to repair the funding situation for education in Montana, which he called a "debacle."
He added that most towns in Montana wish they had an engine for economic development and education like Montana State University-Northern. He said he will support Northern during his term as governor.
Schweitzer said his administration proposes increasing funding this year for K-12 schools, as well as increased funding for higher education, children's health insurance and health care in general.
"We can do these things and do it without raising taxes," he said.
He added that he wants to stimulate economic development by raising the bar on what business equipment is taxed.
Businesses with equipment valued at a total of $5,000 or less do not pay business equipment taxes, and Schweitzer said he is going to increase that to $20,000.
That will eliminate the tax for about 13,300 small businesses, he said.
"That's economic development," Schweitzer added.