ALAN SUDERMAN Associated Press Writer
HELENA A plan to give $4 million in state funds to the private Montana Meth Project is flying through the Legislature despite some criticism that the state has more pressing needs than paying for a billionaire’s favorite project. Software mogul and part-time Montana resident Tom Siebel has spent about $12 million funding the Montana Meth Project. The disturbing TV, radio and billboard ads used in the campaign have been coveted by other states, been praised by the White House, and, according to Siebel, changed the attitude of Montana’s teens about methamphetamine use. Now Siebel says the state should start funding some of the program. Most state politicians think he’s right. Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Mike McGrath support putting state dollars into the program, which they said was always intended to be a joint enterprise between private donors and the state. House Democratic Leader John Parker of Great Falls, has called putting tax dollars into the project a “wonderful priority.” And a fiscal conservative who has opposed all sorts of state spending has even proposed quadrupling the governor’s request for $1 million. Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, successfully pushed the plan out of the House on a 80-20 vote. He was joined by some other fiscal conservatives, including Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, and House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings. Some lawmakers have claimed the state money would be matched by Siebel. The Meth Project said that’s not true, and say Siebel is only matching private donations. Rep. Dave Gallik, D-Helena, said that while the Montana Meth Project may be worthwhile, the state shouldn’t have to pick up so much of the bill. “I’ve got some prioritization issues,” Gallik said. “When we can’t fund some really basic services ... why should we take over somebody else’s private project?” He added that he is worried the state is setting a precedent of funding the project of “the next gagillionaire.” A spokeswoman at the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation said Siebel was not available for comment. But Don Hargrove, a lobbyist representing the Meth Project, said the project did not belong to Siebel personally, but to the entire state. As such, he said, the state should put some money into the program. Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said many of her colleagues are supporting additional funding for the program for political gain. “It’s simple, it’s easy and looks good, and it’s popular,” Caferro said. “But it leaves out a big piece of the picture, which is investing in children’s health care and education, which isn’t as sexy.” House Republicans have cut millions of dollars from the governor’s original budget, which they have argued was bloated and wastes taxpayers dollars. The cuts included $4.3 million that was axed from the meth treatment centers advertised as a way to reduce the prison population. Critics argue there is a much greater need to fund treatment facilities than the ad campaign, and they point out that the Meth Project itself is producing the surveys that show its success. “We haven’t been able to scare kids straight yet,” said Mona Sumner with the Rimrock Foundation drug and alcohol treatment program in Billings. “I have a lot of trouble with the ways they are flying fast and free.” But Koopman, one of the most vocal supporters of a smaller government, said a prevention program like the Montana Meth Project is a better investment than treatment facilities. “There is a role in government in protecting life,” Koopman said. “The Montana Meth Project has, in my opinion, saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.” The governor said he’s puzzled by Koopman’s enthusiastic support of the anti-meth campaign, considering his vote last session against an effort to restrict the sale of over-the-counter cold pills used in methamphetamine production. “That’s quite a conversion,” Schweitzer said. “That’s like taking a John Deere tractor and turning it into a Lamborghini.” The attorney general said the Meth Project is just one piece, albeit a vital part, of fighting meth use in Montana and there’s no doubt that the program has been effective in raising the level of awareness of the devastating effects of the drug. McGrath added that the Legislature ought to have enough money with a billion dollar surplus to fund both treatment and prevention programs. “The point is, you have to do all this stuff,” McGrath said. The Senate’s current version of the budget allocates $1 million for the program, but the Senate has yet to consider Koopman’s bill. The bill is House Bill 418.