Time for investment, not aid
On the rare occasion of a gubernatorial fly-in, I was compelled to join the crowd at City Hall last week to witness Gov. Steve Bullock’s “big announcement.”
The guv received a warm reception in that nothing was thrown at him. He addressed the crowd in an aw-shucks manner made conspicuously inauthentic by his blue jeans and open-collar shirt — the uniform of the not-out-of-touch politician whenever that breed travels to remote locations. By now the details have been reported by the newsy folks, so now some views about the news, folks.
Facts are a stubborn thing. In May of 2013 Gov. Bullock vetoed HB 218, which passed the legislature 141-8 and would have provided $35 million in infrastructure investment to Eastern Montana. If you asked the legislature to vote on motherhood and apple pie you might not fare as well.
The guv says he was forced to veto HB 218 to balance the budget. Balancing the budget is not the same as setting priorities. The governor blessed spending nearly the same amount to build a community college in Missoula — next to the University. In exchange, the good people of Missoula were incensed they might have to sacrifice a golf course to make room. Leaving aside the two community colleges in Eastern Montana struggling with enrollment, $29 million for a new college in Missoula and no support for infrastructure in 13 eastern counties apparently makes fiscal sense to Gov. Bullock. Facts are stubborn.
In fact, the veto of HB 218 received swift condemnation across the state. An editorial from Butte’s Montana Standard said, “It comes with surprise and dismay that Gov. Bullock chose to veto a strong bipartisan bill, HB 218, which provides much needed assistance to our eastern residents.”
We all know the raw deal the governor gave us, but it is this support from Butte that inadvertently illustrates the real problem – everyone is talking about it wrongly: We don’t need assistance, aid or “our fair share.”
Follow me here. If you live in an ordinary home on an ordinary block in an ordinary community and suddenly your neighbor buys an Italian sports car, a vacation home in France and an in-ground swimming pool, you might wonder how. When that neighbor tells you he’s invested well, you might ask to get in on the deal. When he gives you a stock tip, you call your broker.
The state of Montana needs to realize North Dakota is the successful neighbor. Right now there is an imaginary line running between Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. On one side is a state that has invested in water, roads, schools and more. Every family who lives on that side of the line pays taxes, schools kids, shops and eats in North Dakota.
For Montana to share the prosperity, we need to take the stock tip and make an investment here. Surely there are situations where mines and mills and industries close and hard times cry out for state aid. This isn’t that. It doesn’t help to talk about it as though it is. Instead, we need to practice some basic economics because the state’s future is actually vested in what happens here.
Geology disadvantages us because oil runs less plentiful here, but geography costs us more because politics ignores us here.
If our state wants to play in the Bakken we need to get serious. The communities of Northeast Montana don’t need “help” or a “fair share.” These communities are integral to the future of Montana in a way they may have rarely been.
We don’t need to have the oil under our feet to reap the benefit of the industrial juggernaut needed to tap it, produce it and deliver it. After all, most of Yellowstone Park is in Wyoming, but that doesn’t stop Montana from reaping enormous benefits. Given the opportunity, people choose to live here.
So we return to the fly-in. In an ideal world the governor would come to say:
“I was new on the job when I vetoed HB 218, I was poorly advised and made a mistake. I now know the future of Montana is being written in communities like Glendive and Sidney. I know citizens from the Flathead to the Bitterroot and from the Gallatin to the Yellowstone valley are working hard in the greatest energy play of this generation. I, on behalf of the state, want in. The State of Montana wants to win. We know the time to succeed is now.”
Instead, the governor came to take a political mulligan. He regrets his veto of HB 218, but can’t admit it.
Make no mistake, the legislative majority is not without fault: If they truly believe we are missing an historic opportunity, they should focus on solutions rather than on funding mechanism that satisfy their ideological druthers.
By doubling down on empty promises in an election year, both sides widen the gap between the two states.
Borders matter. There is another imaginary line running along the Rio Grande. The water that touches each bank is the same, but there remains a big difference between the sides. That difference is governance.
Hyping investment that never comes is not just insulting; it is a lost opportunity. While Montana dithers, people, businesses and taxpayers keep moving to North Dakota.
So I humbly suggest a grand bargain: We’ll take the governor’s $45 million in bonds and the legislature’s $50 million in cash, round up to $100 million and call it a down payment on a long-term investment strategy for all Montanans. Everyone ought to vote for that.
Chad Knudson is the general manager of the Glendive Ranger-Review. He can be reached at email@example.com.