MISSOULA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer told a handful of western Montana community leaders Monday that he wants a letter of support for leasing the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana before he releases their share of $3.8 million in state grant money that had been frozen because of concerns over the state budget.
The indication that communities should endorse state coal leases if they want funding has angered opponents and community leaders, including Jim Jensen, the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“This money is supposed to be used for schools and he’s trying to use it as a slush fund to spread around the state to curry favor for his administration and essentially buy or blackmail communities’ support for coal,” Jensen told the Missoulian newspaper.
The governor said he thinks the allegation misses the point.
“If any community specifically doesn’t want funds that are traced to coal money, they need to be aware that these funds are traced to coal money,” Schweitzer said Tuesday in an interview. “I don’t want to force dollars on a community that the community doesn’t want.”
Schweitzer said the release of some of the grant money is imminent because he’s “95 percent certain” that the state will receive an $85.8 million lease payment from Arch Coal Inc. on April 16.
“I’m here today to say this: I haven’t decided which projects and how much to cut,” Schweitzer said. “I can cut up to $2.1 million, (but) I believe our situation has improved a great deal, really because of that $85 million.”
In Missoula, Schweitzer asked the mayor, Missoula County commissioners, and state legislators for letters of support for a $300,000 road project and for the use of coal money to pay for it.
“The potential revenue from the sale of Otter Creek coal might allow for your project/projects to be funded,” Schweitzer said in a letter he signed at the end of his visit. “Please return a letter confirming that you ‘support the use of coal money for the completion of your project/projects.'”
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the county will be drafting a letter in support of the road project, but she’s “not sure it’s going to have everything in it he wants.”
Schweitzer also visited Stevensville, Philipsburg, Anaconda and Walkerville on Monday with the same message.
Two weeks ago, Schweitzer warned communities that had been frozen out of their stimulus money — thanks to a money crunch — that there would now be strings attached to the funds. The warning seemed aimed at both conservatives and liberals.
In an apparent jab to Republicans, he said he may not send money to districts of legislators who originally opposed allocating the stimulus money last year in House Bill 645.
And then he told coal opponents to take notice by stating that community leaders would need to endorse coal money as the savior that would allow their local project to go forward.
The frozen local stimulus money has provided plenty of drama in recent weeks.
A high-ranking Commerce Department employee said he was fired for giving a list of the frozen projects to a state senator. And Republicans criticized Schweitzer of withholding the funds in local communities represented by GOP lawmakers.
The governor also used the coal money to lure advocates for the disabled to support Otter Creek by telling them he would use money to avoid cuts in their area of social services.
RELATED: Roads for Coal Money
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