Montana Governor’s Race Features Old Foes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his Republican challenger state Sen. Roy Brown, have both called for increased energy development, lower taxes and a more open state government.

Schweitzer points to last year’s property tax rebate and several recently announced wind and coal projects as testament to his ability to deliver on those issues — and the reason why he deserves another term.

But Brown charges that after almost four years, the incumbent’s promises are beginning to ring hollow.

Brown says oil production is falling off, the tax rebate is unlikely to be repeated and Schweitzer’s advocacy of open governance were undermined by a recent speech in which he boasted of trying to influence the state’s 2006 congressional election.

The political grappling between the candidates is old news in Helena. Back in January 2005, it was Brown, then a soft-spoken House Republican Leader, who rebutted Schweitzer’s first State of the State speech. And it was Brown who led early GOP legislative battles against Schweitzer, whose garrulous, larger-than-life persona frequently lands him in the public limelight but also attracts political enemies.

In fact, the same line of attack Republicans used in 2005 remains: Schweitzer and Democrats spend too much money and misrepresent tax cuts.

“We strongly disagree with Schweitzer’s level of spending, and with giving tax breaks to Hollywood filmmakers while breaking promises with Montana businesses,” Brown said at the time. It could easily be a line from his current stump speech.

On the campaign trail, Schweitzer highlights his achievements.

“What we have in Montana is an island of tranquility amid a storm that is swirling someplace else,” the governor told voters in September.

His message is simple: Taxes are down, energy development is up and the state’s economy is doing relatively well. He also peppers his speech with a few key initiatives, such as the freeze on college tuition hikes, K-12 education funding increases and efforts to improve land access for hunters and anglers.

On some key issues there doesn’t seem to be much that separates the two. Brown just promises to do better.

For example, on energy, Schweitzer has raised his national profile by speaking out on the importance of coal, wind power and domestically drilled oil in reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign fuels. Under his tenure, natural gas and coal production rose and the state’s first major wind project came online.

Brown counters that most of those increases were set in motion before Schweitzer took control, by his Republican predecessors. He promises an even more aggressive energy policy.

The GOP candidate also says Schweitzer claims of economic gains in Montana are inflated, and promises to slash taxes to spur job and wage growth. He wants to cut property taxes by $100 million to $150 million annually.

Whereas Schweitzer’s tax rebate went to homeowners, Brown contends commercial property owners need a break, too, so they can invest more money in their businesses as a way to spur economic growth.

“We are seeing the p.r. campaign and all the TV ads about the jobs he created, but we are not seeing it around the kitchen table,” Brown said during a Helena speech in September. “We believe we can do better — much, much better.”

Almost all of Brown’s answers boil down to a promise to dig more coal and drill more oil. School funding can be fixed with energy revenues, too, he argues. And he says the increased activity will fill state coffers and balance the budget after tax cuts — which he argues will also result in more revenue from increased business activity.

“If we cut taxes, we will end up with more revenue,” Brown tells voters.

Schweitzer has brushed aside criticism from Brown over a summer speech to trial lawyers in which the governor suggested influencing the congressional election. Schweitzer later apologized and said he was joking. While campaigning, Schweitzer tells voters he has learned he is no comic, and jokes about cutting down on his jokes.

He said his travel around the state and country is part of what makes him successful, pointing to companies that have heard his speeches and looked at investing in Montana.

“I could wait in the corner of office for the phone to ring, or I could go out and recruit business,” Schweitzer said in a September speech.

Also in the race is Stan Jones, a perennial candidate running under the Libertarian Party banner. Jones is running on a platform of reducing government and taxes.