Sally Mauk talks education, coal – and heroes with Governor Schweitzer…

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce (left) records an interview between News Director Sally Mauk  and Governor Brian Schweitzer last week

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce (left) records an interview between News Director Sally Mauk and Governor Brian Schweitzer last week

Governor Brian Schweitzer recently sat down in his Capitol office with News Director Sally Mauk to reflect on his two terms as one of the most popular governors in the state’s history. Last night in part one of that interview, Schweitzer talked about his relationship with the legislature. Tonight in part two, the governor talks about higher education, energy development – and his future…

Sally Mauk talks politics – and legacy – with Governor Schweitzer…

DSC03493One of the most popular governors in Montana’s history leaves office the end of this month, after two flamboyant terms that featured everything from frequent national headlines to a veto branding iron. News Director Sally Mauk recently sat down with Governor Brian Schweitzer in his Capitol office, to review his tenure – and discuss his legacy. Tonight, in part one of a two-part interview, Schweitzer talks about his decision to leave farming to become a politician – and his relationship with the legislature…

 

Montana opens first state employee health clinic in Helena

Montana held a grand opening for the nation’s first state-run health clinic for public employees Thursday in Helena.

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer toured the facility he says will keep the immediate area’s 11-thousand state workers and their dependents healthier while saving the state millions of dollars over the next few years.

“We’re completely full,” Schweitzer said about the Friday schedule, the clinic’s first day seeing patients.

He unveiled his plan for opening state employee health clinics back in February, and then set an aggressive schedule to have the first one open by late Summer. The administration’s proposal has several other clinics opening in other major Montana communities later.

The state is contracting with the private, Tennessee-based, company Care Here to operate the clinic with Montana employees. Physician Assistant Cassie Springer says she wanted to work at the clinic because she respects the facility’s preventive care model. Patients pay no co-pay or deductible.

The staff wants to get state employees in to see a physician early to catch problems before they get worse.

“We’re looking at bringing in patients regularly, staying on top of their healthcare,” she said. The state saves money if this prevents more costly treatments or emergency room visits down the line.

Health Care and Benefits Division Administrator in the Montana Department of Administration Russ Hill says a state analysis of the entire health clinic proposal shows Montana saving $100 million dollars over the next five years “based on full implementation for all clinics across the state.”

Governor Schweitzer says he’s been fielding attacks about his idea as government run health care.

“The first attacks were something about Obamacare. Well this has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act,” Schweitzer said. “The only thing this has to do with the Affordable Care Act is we are challenging expenses here in Montana because they didn’t challenge expenses in Washington D.C.”

Schweitzer says this is an idea from the private sector.  Companies like Google, Cisco, and Boeing use this on-site clinic model with their employees.

Healthcare consultant Mike La Penna has been researching the on-site clinic industry for the last decade, recently publishing a book on the subject.

He says counties and cities in other parts of the country have opened similar clinics, but never before on the state level.

“This is a game changer,” La Penna said. “Other state’s will be watching this closely.”

Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis has problems with the program. Not necessarily with this first clinic itself, he says it looks great. But it’s a big change, and Lewis does not think this kind of decision should be able to be made without legislative approval.

“The issue is whether or not a governor unilaterally has the authority to make that kind of policy change,” Lewis said. He is pursuing a bill for the next Legislature which would prevent that type of authority for the governor’s office in the future.

Schweitzer will be leaving office at the end of this year due to term limits.

Half of state fire suppression fund spent

Smoke rises from the Corral Fire, outside Helena, in June

The long fire season is continuing to draw down state coffers.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has used about half of the fund it set out for fire suppression for the season.

The Montana Legislature has been putting money away in a fire suppression fund since the end 2007’s extreme fire year.

DNRC Deputy Director Joe Lamson says relative calm the last couple years has allowed the state to stash about $16 million into that fund. Lamson says so far this fire season the state has burnt through about half of that.

“We’ve used a good portion of it, but we’ve still got a ways to go and hopefully we won’t have too terrible of a year,” Lamson said.

Although, Lamson says the state hasn’t spent as much money thus far as officials initially feared, despite consistent high temperatures and red flag conditions. At between $8 and $9 million spent so far by August– Lamson is crossing his fingers 2012 won’t end up looking like 2007.

“Well, I believe our cost in ’07 was $50 million dollars,” he said, “which is very substantial.”

If the state ends up spending more than what the fire suppression fund holds—the legislature will pay the bills after the fact. That’s how the state handled fire seasons 2007 and earlier.

Lamson says liability for a wildfire depends on where it starts. State lands—state funds. Federal public lands—federal funds. Private landowners can also be responsible for wildfire costs if one starts on their property.

Governor Brian Schweitzer met with the new Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Faye Krueger on Monday. Schweitzer says local, state, and the federal government each need to do a better job of making sure people are thinking about wildfire when building homes in the so-called wildland-urban interface.

“You’re going to spend millions,” Schweitzer said to Krueger, “we’re going to spend millions and most of the money we spend is to try to protect a few homes that never should have been built in the places they’re built and never should have been built in the way they’re built.”

He reminds landowners firefighters only save the homes they think they can save with the resources they have. Undertaking wildfire mitigation projects on private land in the wildland-urban interface is important, Krueger said.

“It’s incumbent on private landowners to protect their own homes, their own structures and so if they’re able to do that it saves the state and the federal government in wildfire suppression dollars,” she added.

Schweitzer says all sectors of government need to start challenging the way they spend money on wildfire. He says certain methods of fire suppression seeking to reduce fire danger over the last 100 years have sometimes actually led to bigger, more damaging fires down the road. He describes fires as an ecological necessity.

“Wildfires are part of the weather, and I know Smokey the Bear has been telling us since we were children and even before then that fire is bad. Smokey didn’t exactly have it right,” Schweitzer said.

And he believes landowners need to keep that in mind when deciding where to build their homes.

 

 

Committee wants Legislature to vote on Governor’s ability to create State Employee Health Clinics

A committee of state lawmakers has voted to put a bill before the legislature deciding whether the Governor should have the authority to create a series of health clinics for state employees.

Governor Brian Schweitzer has pitched the state employee health clinics as a way to save money and provide better care.

Helena Republican Senator Dave Lewis says the Governor currently does not need legislative approval to make this move through the budget of the state insurance pool. Lewis wants that to change.

“So the Executive Branch, the Governor and his department can do whatever they want. We just felt major policy decisions in a pool of this importance should be reviewed by the Legislature and so we’re gonna ask a bill be prepared and submitted to the Legislature to require that in the future,” Lewis said.

The committee looking at the issue approved putting it before the legislature by a five to three vote. Billings Democratic Senator Kendall Van Dyk says the Governor has come up with innovative ideas in the health clinic proposal and Van Dyk says he supports the idea. He voted against putting its approval before the legislature in 2013.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with that in principal but I know the tone of this legislature and I know what they’re trying to do which is a backhanded attempt at preventing the governor from getting these facilities underway,” Van Dyk said.

The Governor’s office is in contract negotiations to open a clinic first in Helena then expand to other communities. Governor Schweitzer’s term in office expires at the end of the year.

 

Missouri River governors meet to discuss future flood preparation

Governor Brian Schweitzer and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton listen in on Governor’s Missouri River meeting on Wednesday

Governors of states affected by the Missouri River met today to discuss preparing against future flooding events. States along the entire length of the Missouri were greatly affected by record flooding during the spring of 2011. Analysts during a similar meeting last year predicted another wet year for 2012.

Governor’s from states like Nebraska and Iowa wanted upstream states like North Dakota and Montana to significantly lower water in their reservoirs to prepare for this year’s flooding season. Governor Brian Schweitzer is happy the federal government did not heed that request.

The federal government controls the dams on the Missouri River–through the Army Corps of Engineers. So when the Governors of the states along the Missouri meet to talk about controlling reservoir water levels–they’re basically making suggestions.

Priorities from downstream governors this year sounded similar to last year.

“Again, I’m gonna sound like a broken record. It’s been established by the governor’s but we believe flood control needs to be established as the highest priority for the Missouri River management,” said Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds at the meeting in Bismark, N.D.

Figures show about 70 percent of the water in the Missouri River comes from Montana. The downstream governors last year advocated heavy drawdowns on Fort Peck Reservoir. That way–the reservoir could hold a lot more of our mountain snowmelt this Spring.

But flood control was not the top priority for every governor last year–namely Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer–and the same is true now.

In 2011, Schweitzer said it was too early to predict what would happen with the next year’s flood season. If another major high water year did not come, Montana would be left without enough water in Fort Peck for its needs–like irrigation.

Ultimately, the Corps decided to keep with its traditional framework for determining reservoir water levels—thus no major drawdowns. The Corps has instead been focusing resources on repairing dams and levees damaged last year. Governor Schweitzer joined the meeting via a conference call in Helena. He pointed out that predictions for 2012 did not end up coming true.

“2011 was the biggest year since Noah built his boat and now 2012 is actually less than the average of the last 110 years—all in one year,” he said.

Schweitzer says the downstream states did not follow the Army Corps warning in the early 90s that they should not allow building in the Missouri flood plain. The Corps’ Brigadier General John McMahon agrees with Schweitzer on that point. That’s part of the reason he says policy makers at all levels of government need to stay vigilant in planning for floods in every way they can.

“My big fear is that as time goes on and we enjoy this kind of great weather we’re gonna lose the momentum that’s been generated out of the 2011 event,” McMahon said.

But a dramatic lowering of Fort Peck was barely discussed as an approach this year.

Wildfire experts predicting ‘normal’ fire season this summer

Fire officials from multiple agencies brief Governor Brian Schweitzer Tuesday

Wildfire experts are predicting a ‘normal’ fire season for this summer.
Agencies ranging from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to the Montana National Guard gave their annual fire season briefing to Governor Brian Schweitzer.
Wildfires have already burned 30-thousand acres across Montana in 2012.
The Governor’s office says hot, dry weather this month is pushing fire risk in some areas to unseasonably high.
Meteorologist with Northern Rockies Predictive Services Mike Kreyenhagen says Montana did receive decent mountain snowpack this past winter. Still, he says the fire season depends on weather over the next few months.
“My official forecast is we are probably going to have a busy July,” Kreyenhagen said. “I think we’re going to see our typical start to our fire season. We’re going to get the grass fires out east, gonna slowly migrate north and west. If we get the rains in August and September we’ll be in fairly good shape. If we don’t, if we stay dry–I think we’ve got a chance to really pick up a lot of acres this summer.”
The Governor’s office stresses homeowners near wildlands need to do their part to protect their property even with fire crews at the ready. Officials ask homeowners to create defensible space around their homes by reducing flammable materials.

State hails recovery of fishery at Silver Bow Creek Superfund Site

Kennedy Elementary 6th Graders Saxon Walton and Desaray Blunt (back row from left) and Kelliann Neary, Nadine McDaniel, Mackenzie Coe and Alexis Miller (front row from left) stand by Silver Bow Creek Monday

State officials are celebrating a milestone in the restoration of a small creek near Butte. For 100 years, Silver Bow Creek was so polluted with mining waste it was considered a dead zone for fish and wildlife. A $120 million restoration effort began on the stream in 1999.

The fish are finally coming back.

6th Graders from Butte’s Kennedy Elementary School got to take an afternoon field trip to the banks of Silver Bow Creek for a big announcement from the Governor. Teacher Terri Daily’s class has been learning about Superfund sites for the last month.

These kids know their Silver Bow Creek history.

“Heavy metals or mining got into the river and polluted it. So what they did is cleaned it up and reopened it,” MacKenzie Coe said, summing it up.

That’s pretty concise and it’s largely due to one watershed moment. Severe spring flooding in 1908 washed Butte mine tailings into the stream and surrounding flood plain. Things like copper, arsenic, mercury–just annihilated aquatic life, plants and animals.

Bud Lilly (right) with Governor Brian Schweitzer

“I started coming to Butte Montana in 1929, as a little boy, this creek was just a conduit for contamination,” said legendary fly fisherman Bud Lilly—the man known for pioneering the catch and release fishing ethic and founding Montana’s Trout Unlimited.

“Did you ever think you’d catch a fish in here?” I asked Lilly.

“I didn’t think you could put your foot in, it would rot off,” Lilly replied, chuckling.

Silver Bow Creek runs into the Clark Fork River. The contaminants from that 1908 flood washed all the way down to a dam in Milltown. Decades later it led the EPA to declare the entire area the biggest Superfund site in the country.

All fed by this quaint little brook.

The corporate descendent of the old Butte mines, ARCO, settled with the state in the 90s to pay for the entire cleanup. The Silver Bow project has been massive—a feat of engineering. In order to do this kind of cleanup you literally have to reroute the entire stream. You dig out all the pollutants from the old bed and the flood plain, restore that, then move the creek back over.

The project is about 80 percent complete and life is finding its way into Silver Bow Creek again–animals and plants

Wearing tan chest-waders—Governor Brian Schweitzer seemed to be casting for both.

“And I got hung up on some weeds, which almost always–you see that weed? That’s what happens with a wooley bugger.”

Schweitzer came to the creek with Bud Lilly and representatives from several state agencies to announce an official comeback for the fishery here. It’s a low-density fish population of rainbow, brook and westslope cutthroat trout.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is putting in special fishing regulations for the creek—for the first time. They require anglers put back the cutthroat they catch. That’s fine with Bud Lilly, he’s all about this preservation stuff.

“That creek is more valuable than copper and gold because it’s clean, clear water, it’s feeding our main rivers,” he said.

“This will be a better river next year than it was this year and it’s a better river this year than it’s been for the last 100 years,” said Schweitzer, adding this will continue for generations. And the next generation in Terri Daily’s 6th grade class seemed at least a little excited to cast a line themselves.

FWP to appeal bison transfer injunction to MT Supreme Court

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has notified the state Supreme Court it will appeal a recent injunction blocking the transfer of 30 Yellowstone bison to a Montana Indian Reservation. FWP signed a memorandum of understanding with both the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations regarding the transfer late last year.

The injunction comes largely from landowners bordering Ft. Belknap who do not think the tribe will manage the bison responsibly.

Kerry White serves on the board of the group Citizens for Balanced Use, one of the plaintiffs in this injunction. He wonders why FWP is appealing a 30-day injunction to the state’s highest court without letting District Court try the case first.

“This is just a simple injunction to hold them off for 30 days from putting free-roaming bison into northeastern Montana,” White said.

“There’s just more delay at the District Court,” Governor Schweitzer said, “and the consideration of law probably ought to just go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

These 60 genetically-pure bison originally wandered out of Yellowstone National Park. They have been found free of the disease brucellosis and so the state has kept them in quarantine for about 5 years—trying to figure out what to do with them. Officials penciled out the agreement to split the bison between Fort Peck and Fort Belknap last year.

Kerry White and the other plaintiffs sought the injunction because they worry about Fort Belknap. The reservation already has a commercial bison herd. White says photos from neighboring landowners show how those bison escape from poor fencing on Fort Belknap.

“Several times the tribe has been presented with damage bills, receipts from haystacks damaged, cropland damaged and the tribe has refused to respond to these requests from the landowners to be reimbursed,” White said. Landowners say sometimes these bills have run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Fort Belknap officials did not return calls seeking comment.

But Governor Schweitzer says those problems are beside the point. Those are property battles between two private entities. The Yellowstone bison are in a separate category—a state matter. He asks the plaintiffs to look at the Memorandum of Understanding the state has signed with the tribe.

“It specifically lays out the kind of fencing that would need to be built and it lays out the fact that these bison will not be allowed to get out,” Schweitzer said.

The Yellowstone bison need to be kept separate from the tribe’s commercial herd. They need to be enclosed within electric fencing, not the barbed wire the tribe normally uses. Schweitzer says bison will not be moved to Ft. Belknap unless the reservation demonstrates they are following the agreement.

“The value of these genetics are worth way too much to allow these bison to be crossed with cattle or to be crossed with other bison that have cattle genetics in them,” Schweitzer said.

The 60 bison have already been moved to the Fort Peck Reservation, which already has the appropriate fencing and infrastructure to keep them. The plan has been to transfer the bison to Fort Belknap once that reservation installs their fences, ideally by this summer. But that move depends on the either the Supreme Court considering the injunction or sending it back to District Court for a ruling there.

Montana, Blackfeet Tribe sign oil and gas tax agreement

Blackfeet Chairman T.J. Show, Governor Brian Schweitzer, and Attorney General Steve Bullock sign the Blackfeet Oil and Gas Tax Agreement Monday

The state of Montana has signed an agreement with the Blackfeet Tribe to lower taxation on oil and gas development. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and Attorney General Steve Bullock signed the agreement Monday with Blackfeet tribal chairman T.J. Show. Schweitzer says the agreement prevents developers from being taxed by both the tribe and the state.

“Unfortunately in the past there have been oil and gas companies who have said and sometimes it’s actually occurred that they decided to drill off the reservation as opposed to on the reservation so they didn’t have to pay double taxation,” Schweitzer said adding, instead the state and the tribe will share revenue from development taxes. This agreement comes after years of negotiations. Blackfeet chairman T.J. Show says it will help his people.

“In light of the recent economic boom that’s potentially there right now, so this is another step forward for the Blackfeet tribe,” Show said.

The agreement takes affect after a forthcoming public meeting on the issue. Governor Schweitzer says the Blackfeet Reservation has oil and gas development potential due to a formation stretching down from Alberta.