Meet the governor

Schweitzer closed the deal. What now?


The Independent spoke with Democratic Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer in a phone interview Monday, Nov. 8, to discuss his plans for the next four years.

Indy: Congratulations, Mr. Schweitzer.

Schweitzer: Well, thank you. For Democrats to take the Senate back and to make such gains in the House and for Democrats to get four out of five on the state land board, I think it was a mandate. Indy: Because Montana hasn’t had a Democrat in the governor’s office since 1988, do you feel an extra pressure to be a political role model?

Schweitzer: I suppose so. I will be the face of the Montana Democratic Party. It will be an inclusive face, a face that finds a way of saying “yes” more often than “no.” It will be a face that recognizes the importance of the timber industry, agriculture, extractive industries, and also recognizes the new industries we’re bringing to Montana that are predicated on higher education and technology.

Indy: What is the first thing you plan to do as governor?

Schweitzer: Right now we’re putting together the transition team. That’s very important. Those are the folks that will be the eyes and ears of this next administration. We want curious people who will question the status quo at every turn.

Indy: One of those people is David Ewer, whom you’ve just appointed as your budget director. What will he bring to the table that maybe we didn’t see in the Martz administration?

Schweitzer: It’s a different style. He’s a Harvard-educated economist. He’s worked with the Montana Board of Investments as one of the most respected money guys in the state. In 1997, of all 150 legislators, he understood what utility deregulation was better than anybody else. He stood on the House floor and passionately argued against utility deregulation and he predicted everything that has occurred since. That’s the kind of vision this man has.

Indy: Is there a specific issue you’re looking to tackle on day one?

Schweitzer: We’re going to pass an open-container law. We’re going to pass legislation to put more money in higher education. I’ve committed to raise $10 million personally for higher education as governor. We’ll also pass an ethanol bill.

Indy: How will you bring ethanol production to Montana?

Schweitzer: There’s a market for ethanol in all the states and provinces surrounding us, so we’ll [create a market by passing] a bill that says a portion of all the fuel sold in Montana has to have ethanol in it.

Indy: And you’ve talked about investing in Montana’s economy “from Main Street out.” What does that mean, and what concrete steps we can expect from you on that front?

Schweitzer: What it means is that 85 percent of Montana that works in private industry works for an employer with 50 or fewer employees. We’re a state of small businesses. [One of] the tools that small businesses need to thrive and survive is the ability to have competitive health insurance. We’ve got plans for that through pooling and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. We’ve got two pieces of legislation that will bring that forward. The other thing Montana businesses need is a regulatory environment that doesn’t necessarily favor just the big companies. We’re going to look at regulatory and tax policies that will be conducive to small businesses.

Indy: It sounds like you’re talking about tax breaks for small businesses. How will you pay for that?

Schweitzer: To give you an idea, the recent tobacco tax that passed—there’s $15 million in that that would help target tax credits for small businesses to buy health insurance. That’s one place. Indy: You’ve talked a lot about cutting government waste. Is there anything you look at right now that you think could be run more efficiently?

Schweitzer: We’ve got buckets full of ideas that have come from state employees.

Indy: Can you give us one of those ideas as a preview?

Schweitzer: No. What we’re going to do is choose the best idea every month and if it comes from a state employee, we’re going to reward them with a $1,000 check and a medal made of palladium with “Corps of Recovery” written on one side. One side will have the Capitol building and the other side will have Lewis and Clark and their dogs.

Indy: Last time we spoke, you were defining yourself as a “deal closer.” What’s the first deal you’ll look to close?

Schweitzer: I don’t know. The Montana Economic Development Association is out hustling up business all over the state, and I’m going to help them with it.

Indy: Since higher education training is part of your economic development plan, how do you plan to make higher education more affordable?

Schweitzer: We’re talking about businesses stepping to the front and saying, ‘All right, I’m going to be actively involved in designing the curriculum. And in return for that, I will pay one-third of the tuition for any graduate that I hire.’ Ninety-five percent of the graduates of our colleges of technology have jobs waiting for them in Montana, so this is a good marriage. It’s a very inexpensive way of training people. Indy: But do businesses in Montana really care where their workforce comes from?

Schweitzer: Yeah, they do. They care because they like Montanans and Montana graduates are hired all over the country because of their work skills, their work ethic and honesty. So sure, you bet they do.

Indy: After you’ve served your time in office, what will you have done that will most surprise people?

Schweitzer: At the end of four years, people are going to be proud of the leadership they’ve had in Montana. They’ll have a leader that will be recognized as a guy that can be trusted, and when they see the governor of the state of Montana on TV, they’re not going to have to cover their ears, worried about what he might say. We’ll make them proud, and that’s one of the most important jobs in the state.

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