Sunday, January 01, 2006

Mike Dennison on Brian Schweitzer's first year as governor

Mike Dennison/The Missoulian takes a look in the following on what Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer accomplished in his inital year. This is a solid look at Schweitzer's personal values:

Schweitzer: what he said and what he did

By MIKE DENNISON Missoulian State Bureau

Here, one issue at a time, is a look at Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's first year in office - the promises vs. the accomplishments:

School funding: Schweitzer supported an 11 percent, $120 million increase in ongoing state funds for public schools - the largest two-year increase since 1991. He also proposed and supported another $40 million one-time, lump-sum payment to schools, most of which goes for building maintenance, energy costs and Indian Education for All, a program to infuse the teaching of Indian culture throughout the public school curriculum.

Tax policy: Proposed and delivered a freeze of the property tax rate on business equipment at 3 percent, while eliminating the tax for businesses that own $20,000 worth of equipment or less. The latter move eliminated the tax for 13,000 small businesses.

Schweitzer also had promised to examine corporate taxation. He proposed changes to capture unpaid taxes on business and property sales. The proposal was killed by the Legislature, but Schweitzer vows to push for it again in 2007.

State budget: Schweitzer promised to balance the state budget without any tax increases. He accomplished that goal, thanks in part to huge revenue surpluses, and also increased overall government spending by more than $900 million in the current two-year period. The spending increase includes large chunks of federal and one-time funds. Thanks to better-than-expected income and oil-and-gas tax revenue, the state treasury is still projected to have a positive balance of $250 million by mid-2007.

State spending review: The Legislature did not approve Schweitzer's proposed independent panel to audit state spending and look for savings throughout government. The governor says he has instructed his agency directors to closely examine their budgets for possible savings.

Health care/prescription drugs: His administration helped enact and carry out the proposals of Initiative 149, which increased tobacco taxes to pay for prescription drug subsidies, higher Medicaid payments to health-care providers, tax credits to help small businesses provide employee health insurance, and expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

However, six months into the CHIP expansion, 2,000 of the funded slots remain unfilled. CHIP advocates say the Schweitzer administration should promote the program more aggressively.

Schweitzer also had promised to push for re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada and to expose pharmaceutical advertising costs. He's been less successful here, as the Legislature killed initiatives in this area.

Ethanol: Schweitzer supported a proposed mandate for ethanol-blended motor fuel in Montana, hoping to encourage grain-based ethanol production in the state. The Legislature passed a compromise proposal that says the mandate kicks in only after 40 million gallons of ethanol have been produced in Montana for at least three months. Several ethanol-production plants are on the drawing board, but none yet has gone forward.

Alternative energy: Schweitzer pushed for “renewable energy standards” that require public utilities to include minimum amounts of renewable energy, such as wind power, in the electricity they provide customers. The governor says the standards have helped create a boom in wind-power proposals for the state, with several on the drawing board. However, the state's first major wind-power project, which began producing this year, was largely in place before the standards took effect.

Economic development: Schweitzer promised to recruit businesses to Montana, and says his administration has helped on several projects, such as a new DirecTV office in Missoula, a biodiesel plant in Culbertson and a manufacturing plant in Conrad. He counts his accomplishments on ethanol and alternative energy as economic development as well.

Country of origin labeling: He supported the bill that requires “country of origin” labeling for nearly all meat products sold commercially in Montana, effective Oct. 1 this year.

Ethics bill: The Legislature killed Schweitzer's proposal to toughen state ethics laws for public officials, including a new ban on legislators becoming lobbyists for two years after they leave office. He wants to put the proposal on the 2006 ballot as a voter initiative.

University system: Schweitzer proposed, and the Legislature enacted, a new scholarship program for Montana students attending state colleges and universities. About 500 students are eligible for scholarships of up to $2,000 a year.

He also had promised to make two-year colleges more affordable, through public-private partnerships and other steps, and to encourage establishment of $10 million endowments so state schools can offer more scholarships. He has yet to deliver on the latter proposals.

Home-heating assistance: Schweitzer proposed $10 million in home-heating assistance funds for poor households this winter and next, but the Legislature approved only $1 million of the funding. Last week, the governor used his “emergency” powers to set aside another $2.5 million this winter for home-heating assistance.


Anonymous Gary Dikkers said...

Mike Dennison said, "Schweitzer supported a proposed mandate for ethanol-blended motor fuel in Montana, hoping to encourage grain-based ethanol production in the state."

Does Gov Schweitzer know that ethanol is not really a renewable fuel, and that any shift to fuel ethanol would require us to be as dependent on imported natural gas as we are on imported oil?

At every step of the production process, "renewable" grain ethanol consumes unrenewable fossil fuels:

1. Natural gas to make the essential nitrogen fertilizers corn farmers must have.

2. Diesel fuel for farmers to cultivate, plant, harvest, and transport their crop.

3. Diesel fuel to transport fertilizer, seed, and finished ethanol.

4. More natural gas on the farm to dry corn; more at the ethanol plant to mill and distill corn into ethanol; and still more to dry the waste distiller's grains after fermentation.

The hard fact is that making ethanol is unsustainable without burning irreplaceable fossil fuels. Until farmers and ethanol plants show they can use ethanol instead of fossil fuels to grow grain and make ethanol, it is disingenuous to call grain-based ethanol a renewable fuel.

It is ironic that if ethanol ever became our primary liquid fuel, we would still be dependent on an overseas fossil fuel -- natural gas.

Almost all ammonia fertilizer is now made from natural gas. What is not widely known is that an increasingly large percentage of that fertilizer is made overseas and must be imported into the U.S. I've even seen estimates that within five years we will be importing 100% of our nitrogen fertilizers, all made overseas from foreign natural gas.

Using ethanol made from "renewable" grain sounds great until one looks more deeply and sees what goes into making grain renewable.

Would it make sense to replace our dependence on foreign oil with a dependence on imported fertilizers made from foreign natural gas?

Please ask Gov. Schweitzer his answer to that question.

January 01, 2006 7:52 PM  

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