Governor Brian Schweitzer wrote to Montanans regarding the Deficit Reduction Committee failure to come up with a plan this week to reduce the deficit.

 Democrats and Republicans in Congress have dropped the ball once again.  The two parties are unable to make an agreement on how to reduce the national debt, unable to set aside their differences, their egos and their electoral agendas, and find a way to put our country first.  It’s politics first, country second.

But it’s a reason you should be proud to live in Montana. Here, we have found a way to work together, make compromises, and put citizens first.

Last December, I sat down for dinner with Jim Peterson (the Republican Senate President) and Mike Milburn (the Republican Speaker of the House) in the days before the legislative session began, to talk about the next few months and see if we could find a little common ground.  Needless to say, we disagreed strongly on many points.  But we remained friendly about it and we committed to one another that, if nothing else, we would try to hammer out a budget within the 90 day time frame that the Constitution sets out for the legislature, without running into overtime.

Over the course of the legislative session, from January through April, the three of us met again several times.  Sometimes it was productive and sometimes it was not.  There were always disagreements on matters small and large.  And there were always plenty of legislators, from both of our parties, who didn't want either party to concede any ground to the other.

But we kept at it, because we all felt that the citizen comes first, and that stalemate should not be an option.

And the 2011 legislature was no love-fest.  Far from it.  There was plenty of conflict and acrimony.  There were loud shouting matches in committee meetings and during floor sessions, hard-nosed letters and legal threats sent back and forth between the parties and the two branches of government, and plenty of gamesmanship and maneuvering to go around.  I vetoed the first budget that the leaders presented me (the first time a budget has ever been vetoed in Montana) along with plenty of other bills, while Speaker Milburn and President Peterson likewise helped defeat many items that I supported.

But after a final, tough negotiating session that lasted several days, we reached consensus and adjourned with a historic surplus of nearly $400 million (unlike 46 other states which are currently in deficit), full funding of education, and significant tax cuts including a reduction of the business equipment tax for every business in Montana.  And we finally reformed our Work Comp system, which had been one of the most expensive in the nation since the 1990s. Premiums in the coming year will be 20% lower on average.

The Congressional parties, meanwhile, refuse to meet each other halfway.  Americans get no value at all from this squabbling.  Perhaps Montana is in a better position because our legislators are part-timers, citizens who spend most of their months not in the Capitol but out in the real world.  That’s an important feature of Montana politics. It brings average citizens together to solve problems.

At any rate, it’s yet another reason to feel lucky that you live in Montana.

Brian Schweitzer