Governor pleased with end result of legislature
Havre Daily news/Nikki Carlson
FBI victims specialist Heather Ostwalt, center, helps 5-year-old Swede Boushie, left, of Hays mark his fingerprints on a child identification kit while 5-year-old Andrew LaRoque of Hays watches Saturday afternoon at the Hill County United Way's Plant A Seed … READ! event in the Holiday Village Mall.
While Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he would have liked to have seen more from the 2011 Legislature, he seemed pleased overall with the end result, especially with the final balance.
"At the end of the great recession, we still had cash in the bank and we weren't broke like the rest of the states and like Washington, D.C., " Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer took time during a visit in Havre to read to local children during the United Way's Plant a Seed…Read! literacy event at the Holiday Village Mall in Havre. After reading to the children, he gave the Havre Daily News an interview.
He said several of his goals were accomplished during the generally highly divided, partisan legislative session.
"I challenged the Legislature to get a lot of things done during the get-go, " he said.
Schweitzer touted progress on improving defining utilities' ability to use eminent domain, reforming the state's workers' compensation program and passing some reductions in business equipment taxes as good results from the session.
"And, I would say that Montana, unlike every other state in the union, we invested more money in K-12 (education) and more money in higher education, " he added during an interview in Havre. "I don't know that there is another state in the union that has increased funding for higher education like we did this session. "
Schweitzer said that much of what happened during the early part of the session — like bills making it legal to spearfish or hunt with a silencer or converting the state to a gold standard — gave way to more serious business by the end of the session.
"First off, I said, look, let's agree to create jobs or help businesses create jobs, in the session …, " he said. "In the early part of the session, there was a lot of talk about it, but the bills that were presented really had nothing to do with jobs. "
Schweitzer also cited a bill that proposed the United States leave the United Nations, sponsored by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.
"I think their compass was off a little bit, " Schweitzer said. "Washington, D.C., is actually quite a few miles east of Helena Capitol, and the Montana Legislature would really have no input as to whether we are in the United Nations or not. "
He also addressed a proposal by Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, requiring Montana to switch to a gold and silver standard.
Schweitzer said having local hotels cite rates in ounces of gold or silver, or people pouring gold dust on a scale in a grocery store, would not have helped with jobs.
"Now, this is ridiculous, of course …, " Schweitzer said. "That isn't just silly, that is a business-killer, but that didn't become law. We got that stopped. "
The bill failed in its second reading in the House with a 48-52 vote. Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, voted against the bill, while Havre Republican Reps. Kris Hansen and Wendy Warburton voted in favor.
He said some other actions were intended to increase taxes, including a proposal that would have increased workers compensation rates for some businesses, intended to
Schweitzer did commend the legislators for working across the aisle on some issues.
"I was heartened to see (that) the Republicans and Democrats, working together, were able to build a coalition and pass a completely new workmans (sic) comp bill that will be better for businesses and better for workers, " he said.
He also cited a bill that, he said, redefined the state's position on using eminent domain for power utilities. Schweitzer said that, since 1908, the state had well-defined policies of using eminent domain for power lines. Last year, a state judge ruled in the case of a Canadian company building the Montana-Albera Tie Line that the law was ambiguous.
"It really put a chilling effect on any development in Montana, " Schweitzer said.
He said he challenged legislators to give public utilities the ability to use eminent domain while providing protection to landowners, but that did not happen.
He requested a sunset date on the eminent domain bill to ensure the next Legislature would deal with property rights issues, but the lawmakers did not send him the bill until it adjourned, preventing his using an amendatory veto.
"This bill was not complete. It protected the interest of energy companies, but didn't really have very much consideration for land owners, " Schweitzer said. "That was the only bill they sent me. I had no choice but to sign that one because if I had vetoed that one there wouldn't have been any opportunity to develop in the next couple of years. …
"They didn't get it done, but the good news is that we're back to developing in Montana, " he added.
And, Schweitzer said, in the end, the state prepared a balanced budget with money in the bank that was not that far off from his original proposal.
His budget proposed a 5-percent cut in state funding for the biennium, Schweitzer said.
"They came to town, and, after 88 days of pontification and articulation and accusation, they managed to find another 1 percent for a total of 6 percent cut from the budget, " he said.
"But, along the way, they tried to sneak in a tax increase on 23,000 businesses in Montana, " Schweitzer added.
A 2.75-percent tax was proposed on the last day of the legislative session on the businesses buying workers' compensation through the State Fund. The tax would have helped pay for ongoing costs of claims made before 1990.
"Well, I'm not like Washington, D.C., " Schweitzer said. "We read every line of every single page, and I found that tax increase, and so I line-item vetoed their tax increase.
"Because, since I've been governor I haven't allowed a single tax increase, and I don't propose to start now, " Schweitzer added. "And, they thought that because they passed that bill on the last, literally, the last hour of the last day of the session, that maybe no one would catch 'em, Well, I caught 'em, and I vetoed that tax increase. "