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Stimulus money questions


Few governors with political aspirations would bother to debate a riled-up city commission, on their turf and in front of television cameras, over its "misuse" of federal stimulus money. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer did — and relished every minute of it. Picking on the tiny sliver of stimulus funding has created a buzz and ,along with tough budget talk, has helped burnish the fiscal conservative credentials of a popular term-limited governor — but one who has no apparent place to go next. The unusual Democrat continues to do it his own way, even if it makes staffers cringe and causes fellow Democrats to curse. Schweitzer, a jeans-wearing farmer and soil scientist who drives around in his pickup truck with his dog, made a splash nationally in 2008 when he delivered an impassioned speech at the party's national convention in Denver. After five years in office, the state continues to shower him with high approval ratings. Those are due in part to the state weathering the national recession better than most and maintaining an $8-billion budget without a shortfall. The recent showdown with the Bozeman City Commission goes a l o n g way t owa r d ex p l a i n i n g Schweitzer — who on the way to the meeting joked about using a "a steeltoed boot good for kickin' butts." A week earlier Schweitzer had castigated the city in a letter for spending $50,000 in stimulus money on rubber- tiled tennis courts. Commissioners argued the decision was perfectly acceptable by guidelines, pointing to a state authorization letter, and noted the contract had already been signed. The governor has always had his finger on the pulse of rural Montana's libertarian streak and seems to be catching the wave of government spending overload. The Bozeman leaders were technically right — but Schweitzer was keenly aware the real fight was in the court of public opinion. Each week, he's been rolling out spending cut ideas to great effect — even if some are as small as axing the state government phone book to save just $20,000. Last week, he asked Montanans to submit ideas to save the state money. The winner would get a palladium coin worth about $400. For his efforts, he's getting praise these days from some of the unlikeliest sources. "A Democrat cuts spending. Really," the Wall Street Journal opined. Fox News commentators mused the Montana tennis courts — defended by a state Republican legislator — had flipped the partisan sides in the debate over stimulus spending. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the governor last week to enlist his help with a bipartisan think tank on budget issues. "I was fascinated to see the references to the governor in the Wall Street Journal, to see how he would approach the budget," Gingrich said, addressing reporters listening in on a Conference call. Last Monday night, Schweitzer was not welcome in Bozeman. A Democratic city commissioner cussed Schweitzer out in the hall before the meeting even started. "This is not how you do things," said a visibly upset Chris Mehl, chastising the governor in a busy hallway. "You're governing by press release," he said. The governor, unfazed, took the podium — after public comment from residents supportive of the tennis courts — and told the commission instead to use the stimulus money on the water treatment plant. The town could then use its own money on the tennis courts, he said. He reminded them a full third of the state Legislature voted against taking any of the federal money at all. "I can promise you that, if, during the legislative session you had talked about tennis courts, well, that would have been a moment of light relief," he said. It's not easy to pin him down as specifically conservative or liberal. He largely thinks that stimulus spending has worked, although he's critical of overall spending levels and nitpicks details to great effect. Republicans are infuriated over his perceived ability to win over the public with salesmanship. Last election season, he was the subject of more potentially harmful news stories and editorials than any other state politician on the ballot. He had been caught on tape "joking" about fixing the election for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, and the ethics commissioner said an envoy from the governor tried to influence an ongoing investigation. I t didn' t mat ter, the governor creamed a state senator for whom Republicans had high hopes. A consistent knock on Schweitzer from critics is that he's a great showman who cares more about a good story than results. But to the governor it's often the same, and he walked out of Bozeman knowing he may have lost the room — but confident he would win the war. "This wasn't about the people in the room," Schweitzer said afterward. "This was a message to every city and county in Montana that we need to be accountable for these dollars." Montana politics watchers often speculate about what he will do next — and there is no good answer. Being in Congress wouldn't put him in charge of anything, and the state's two senators are already Democrats. The chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association dismisses recent talk that he would be a good choice for an Obama administration cabinet post. He won't even admit having future political ambitions of any type, perhaps because he is not sure himself what to do. "There is no way I could take orders from someone else," Schweitzer said. The governor rarely if ever hides behind handlers, and often calls reporters before they call him. The morning after his tussle with the Bo z eman c i ty c ommi s s i on, Schweitzer called The Associated Press to point out an unscientific online poll asking if the commission should go ahead with the tennis court plans. "What do you think the poll is?" He said enthusiastically. "It's 74 percent to 26!"


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