An Interview with Gov. Brian Schweitzer

 

Brian Schweitzer, a rancher, was elected governor of Montana in 2004. A Democrat in a Republican-leaning state, Schweitzer was re-elected in 2008 with 66 percent of the vote and, now in the final year of his second term, he has among the highest approval ratings of any governor in the nation. His tenure has seen Montana running large surpluses without raising taxes. Schweitzer is a major proponent of green energy and American energy independence, a topic he addressed, to positive reception, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.  Schweitzer is seen by some as a possible candidate for President in 2016.

The Politic: You are considered one of the major voices on American energy policy. President Obama has pursued a fairly aggressive policy toward reducing American dependence on foreign oil, and imports are now less than 50 percent. But gas prices are going up and his approval ratings are going down. What would you say to the Republican candidates and the Republican Party in terms of energy policy? And what would you say to the American people who are suffering at the pump?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: I would say this: the United States produces 10 percent of all the oil that is produced in the world. Now that’s up from about 7 percent. And I would say this: Under this President, we have markedly increased our production. More than 50 percent of the oil and gas drilling rigs worldwide, currently are being used in the United States. We’re now down to importing only 45 percent of our oil from more than 60 percent during the Bush administration. And we are producing more oil in the United States than we have during any time in the last eight years. But we’re still only 10 percent of the production worldwide. So we are not the drivers of price. There’s probably 25 or 30 dollars per barrel priced in because of hostilities in the Persian Gulf. That is a hostility tax, if you will. We are, of course, producing a little more than half of the oil we actually need in this country, but still we are a price taker not a price maker. Now, the price of gasoline in 2008 under the previous administration was actually higher than it is today. The price of gasoline actually went down during the last three years, more than anything due to the international recession and a decrease in demand. But as demand starts ticking up, it starts sucking up more and more of the reserve capacity to produce. When you have tight supplies of oil, the price of gasoline goes up. The biggest driver here is the price of crude oil, and that is the price set by international events and international producers.

The Politic: If oil is so unsustainable and prone to the influence of international events, what’s the future of American energy?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: It’s an all-of-the-above. Look, we are blessed in this country in that we have an abundance of energy resources. And while we only produce 10 percent of the world’s oil supply, that still puts us in either second or third place in overall oil production worldwide. It’s becoming an increasingly scarce commodity, but we have wonderful wind and solar resources. The United States is still the number one country in the world in coal reserves. And while many people believe that coal is not an important source of energy, it still provides more than 50 percent of the electricity produced in the United States. It is still the least expensive way of producing electricity. Do those coal-fired plants produce pollutants with particulate matter, with mercury, with sulfur, with nitrogen oxide, with CO2? Yes, yes, and yes. Are those newer boilers cleaner than they were in the past? Yes. Is it possible to have zero emissions out of coal technology? Not only is it possible, but there is a zero-emission coal plant operating in our neighboring North Dakota since 1984. And there are dozens of these facilities built all over the world. So coal can be cleaner. America is really in a pretty good position when it comes to energy production, but where I believe that some of these Republicans get it wrong on the campaign trail, they say they have a plan to create two-dollar-per-gallon gasoline. Well, how do you do that, when we’re only producing 10 percent of oil on the planet and we’ve increased the production by about 25 percent since Barack Obama has become President. We might be able to produce another 25 percent increase. We might get all the way up to 12 percent, or 12-1/2 percent of the oil produced worldwide. But since we’re consuming nearly 20 percent of the oil produced on the planet, it means that we are still a price-taker, not a price-maker. So that holds very little promise just to say these things. We could become energy self-reliant in the United States, but it won’t just be with oil. Increasingly, natural gas is going to take the role of our transportation fuel. Natural gas can run every car in America. We’re increasingly going to have a natural gas fleet of cars which will markedly decrease our demand for oil, and that, coupled with increasing natural gas production, we will be decreasing our reliance on oil that comes from these petro-dictators. You couple that with the electric cars that are emerging all over the country, and the ability to produce electricity with wind and solar and cleaner coal—this is a country that is poised to break our addiction to foreign oil. But this is not a two-year plan. This is not a “wave the magic wand.” This is a plan that requires us to have a large infrastructure investment in new natural gas pipelines so that we can deliver the natural gas to the refueling zones all over America. Every gas station in America needs to have the ability to fill cars and trucks with natural gas. We need a huge investment in transmission so that we can move electricity from where the wind is blowing to where the car is driving or to where the office or home is being heated or cooled. That investment is great for America, because every dollar we send to a petro-dictator is a dollar that we didn’t spend building an infrastructure that’s designed by American engineers and built by American workers. Every time they drill another well in one of these petro-dictators’ backyards, that creates jobs for them and it creates insecurity for us. We can break our addiction to foreign oil, we can decrease our consumption of petro-dictators’ oil, but it can’t be done in one year. This is a 20-year plan, and what we need more than anything is a Congress that will stick to something! These people, they’ve become like attention-deficit children. They bounce back and forth off the walls of this issue or that issue, and they can’t stay on the same idea or plan for even one week, let alone 20 years. That’s what we need—we need resolve in this country.

The Politic: You mention the gridlock and inaction of Congress, which stems largely from partisan bickering. You have a Republican as your lieutenant governor, and you have worked with legislatures controlled by both parties. What is your response to all of the partisan rancor in Washington, and do you have any advice for the President on how to work with the GOP-controlled Congress?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Well, it can be done. Obviously I’ve managed here in Montana, where we’ve had for seven consecutive years the largest budget surplus in the history of the state. I’ve cut more taxes for more Montanan business owners than any governor in history, we’ve invested more new money in education, both K-12 and higher education, than any time in history. We created a scholarship program for low-income kids so that they could afford to go to college, and we reformed our higher education system to make it more affordable, more accessible and more relevant. We’ve challenged some Democrats on issues, and we’ve challenged Republicans on issues. Not just Democrats have good ideas; sometimes, Republicans also have good ideas. What I’ve done in Montana, is to embrace those good ideas, wherever they come from.

The Politic: The elections of 2010 increased the number of Republican governors in the nation, many of them elected with support from the Tea Party. Much of the talk was about deficit reduction, and you wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times this past summer in which you discussed Montana’s success in running surpluses, while avoiding many of the fights we have seen in places like Wisconsin and Ohio. What has been your general reaction to the deficit-hawkishness of Tea Party governors?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Oh, it’s rhetoric. Some of these Republican governors are the biggest spenders in the country. They say one thing and do another thing. They run up big budget deficits. They sell infrastructure to save money currently, and act as though they’ve saved the taxpayers some money. We don’t do that in Montana. We are honest with our budgeting, and that’s why I have been such a hawk on building large budget surpluses, because I can’t predict the future. And we’ve made our government more efficient. I have challenged every expense. We were able to decrease the overall number of employees by simply, when people retired we just didn’t replace them. With all of this new technology, small businesses and large businesses all over the world have found that they can make every employee more efficient. We have also challenged expenses in health care. That’s why I’m currently building health clinics for state employees so that we’re not just forking the money over to insurance companies. We’re doing what big companies and small companies have done all over the world, which is to create your own clinics, walk-in clinics, for state employees. And I’m going to be asking the federal government to expand those services to our Medicaid patients so we can continue to provide a better healthcare system at a lower price.

The Politic: You mention health-care, which today is one of the major political issues with the Supreme Court reviewing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That was an act that your Senator, Max Baucus, played a lead role in crafting. What are your views on what has become known as Obamacare?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Well, it’s an incremental improvement over what we had. It isn’t the end-all. We’ve been reforming health-care in this country for the last 80 years, and we’ll be reforming it probably for the next 80 years. I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t challenge the underlying costs. The problem with health-care in the United States is we pay too much and get too little. The new law didn’t challenge the insurance companies, it still put them in charge. It didn’t challenge the pharmaceutical companies: it continues to allow them to gouge American citizens, charging us two to three times as much for exactly the same medicine as they sell in the other industrialized countries. It doesn’t make any sense for citizens in Montana to pay three times as much for the same pill, manufactured in the same plant, as they pay in Alberta, our neighbors just to the north. Or, for that matter, than they pay in England, or Ireland, or France, or Switzerland, or Italy, Japan. So that doesn’t make any sense. Fortunately there are some good things. People who have pre-existing conditions, there is a way forward for them. In the past, it was bankruptcy—that was all they had. Young people up to the age of 26 can stay on their parents’ health insurance. Those are two good features, but I would just point out that I don’t believe that there can be a mandate for a private citizen to buy a service from a private company.

The Politic: So you oppose the federal mandate that every citizen must buy health insurance?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Yes, the mandate, I believe, only works if you have a public option available.

The Politic: Would you support a public option?

“We could become energy self-reliant in the United States, but it won’t just be with oil. Increasingly, natural gas is going to take the role of our transportation fuel.”

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: If there’s a public option, then you can have a mandate. That’s what I think. We’ll see what the Supreme Court says. Now, it works like this: If you’re saying to an individual citizen, “When you get up in the morning, you have a requirement to do some certain things as a citizen. If you make money, you’re required to pay your taxes.” But who do you pay your taxes to? You don’t say, “Oh, you should pay your taxes to United Health Insurance Company.” We say, “No, you pay into our government because it’s the government that provides you public safety, and infrastructure, and education.” I think the flaw in this system is that there is a mandate that you buy insurance from a private company. Well, that’s telling a citizen that you have to take your money out of your pocket and give it to some company over here. That’s a stretch. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Supreme Court throws it out. Now, I think it’s acceptable if we would have said, “You have a menu of places from which you can buy your insurance. You can buy it from a private insurance company, or you can buy your way into Medicare, for example.” So you would be handing that money to the government for a government service.

The Politic: The issue seems to be that if the law says people cannot be denied for having pre-existing conditions, then some people might not buy insurance until they get sick, which would mean much higher premiums for the people who have insurance all along.

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: That’s right, that’s why we need a public option. We can say if you want to buy your insurance from a private company, you’re welcome to. That would take the place of you buying your way into a public option. By the way, there was a bill sent to me by the legislature that says that citizens in Montana won’t honor the mandate. I signed that, because I believe that we can’t, and we won’t, honor the mandate as long as there’s not a public option.

The Politic: Moving into another area of domestic policy: Gay marriage. Governor Andrew Cuomo, in New York, recently signed gay marriage into law. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, vetoed a similar bill. If such a bill were presented to you in Montana, would you sign it or would you veto it?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Well we actually passed, by a citizen referendum in Montana with nearly 70 percent, that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. So it’s actually constitutional in Montana. If the legislature passed a bill that said the government has no place making health-care decisions for you, or telling you if you can pray or who you can pray to, or telling you who to love, I agree with all of that.

The Politic: What are you most proud of in your tenure as governor of Montana?

Governor Schweitzer: That we were able to shepherd Montana’s finances through the Great Recession with surpluses higher than any other state’s; that’s a record that almost no one can match. But I think as much as anything, it’s that we’ve reformed our education system so that, unlike in any other state, we passed a law that we will teach Indian education in every classroom in our public schools. Montanans weren’t on that walk from Montgomery to Selma. We weren’t there when the Little Rock Nine sat down. We didn’t stand with Ceasar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. We weren’t part of those debates, because Montana is 93 percent white and 7 percent Indian. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have similar concerns or problems in Montana. We do. The relationships between Indian people and white people in Montana have not been good. I don’t believe that we can change the heart of someone who is 50 years old, but if we start when their child is six years old and they learn some of the language, and they learn the culture of people who have lived on this land for 12,000 years; when they learn the names of the rivers and the animals in Salish or in Cheyenne; when they learn that there was a civilized culture here for 10,800 years before Lewis and Clark arrived—it changes the perspective. I believe that there will be a long-term legacy change because we have done that. The other thing that has been recognized by the entire country—it was after we had a National Guard member who returned from Iraq, and went back to his ranch. After converting a perfectly good Montana citizen into a warrior and sending that warrior who bravely served in Iraq, then when that warrior returned, we didn’t have a system of helping that warrior become a citizen again. That warrior went out to his ranch and fell into a depression and took his own life. So I started what we call the Yellow Ribbon program in Montana. We start before we deploy these warriors. We start with their families and with them, preparing them for what it will be like to be to be a warrior, but then we prepare the families and communities on how we’re going to convert them back to a citizen. We are there, and are proudly there, when we put them on an airplane to go to battle. We are also there when they return, and we continue with them, helping them with counseling, making sure that there is another eye and another ear with them and making sure that these warriors fully recover and become full citizens again.

The Politic: So much of politics today is consumed by rancor and partisan fights. What advice would you give to college-age Americans who are tired of this vitriolic partisan politics, but want to enter into a life of public service?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: Well, to start with: Get engaged. Part of the reason that these politicians in Washington, D.C. get away with what they’re doing is that the population isn’t fully educated and engaged in what they’re doing. A lot of the things that are said in Washington, D.C. simply are not true. A lot of the things that are done in Washington, if people knew full well what they were doing, they would be ashamed of them, hopefully ashamed enough that they would change their behavior or find new people to serve.

The Politic: A question about your future plans: If Senator Max Baucus does not seek re-election to the Senate in 2014, is there a chance that you will seek that Senate seat?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: I have not expressed much interest in serving in Congress. I think it’s a dysfunctional place, and it probably will be for a period of time. The problem with Congress is that the only thing they really care about is getting re-elected. I’m a doer, not a talker. So I think I’ll pursue whatever ambitions I have in places where I can actually get things done.

The Politic: Is a 2016 Presidential bid a possibility?

GOVERNOR SCHWEITZER: I don’t know. I have to get out a map of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada and Florida and have a look at them.

The Politic: Lastly, who is your political icon? You decided you wanted to leave a life of ranching for politics; who motivated you most of all to enter into the world of politics?

GOVENROR SCHWEITZER: There are two, and they’re completely dissimilar people. One is Teddy Roosevelt, who took on the trusts, who recognized—as we ought to recognize today—that corporations are controlling not just our governments but our everyday lives, and there needs to be some equity for families and small businesses. It was Teddy Roosevelt who recognized that there are some pieces of land on this planet that are so special that they need to be conserved for future generations. It was Teddy Roosevelt who warned us about getting into foreign entanglements: “Speak softly, carry a big stick.” It was Teddy Roosevelt who started as a Republican, and when he ran for President the last time he ran as a Progressive. It was Teddy Roosevelt who proposed universal health care, universal suffrage and workplace safety, in 1912—a little ahead of his time. So one is Teddy Roosevelt. And he didn’t back down. I wish we had more leaders like that today. And the second would be Paul Wellstone, for many of the same things. Paul Wellstone was the conscience of the United States Senate. When other Senators would line up and cower behind the curtains of big insurance and the military-industrial complex because of their huge campaign contributions, it was Paul Wellstone who didn’t even take any PAC money. That’s like me—I don’t take PAC money, and neither did he. It was Paul Wellstone who often times was the one vote when 99 votes went the other way. Those are the kinds of leaders that we need in this country.

 

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