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Fmr. Governor Schweitzer calls BS on GOP, criticizes Dem elitism
Plus: Singer-songwriter Mary Kate Teske talks farm life and trashes MT's TikTok ban in MTFP
Welcome to Big Sky Chat House— a newsletter of candid conversations with movers and shakers in Montana.
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Before we jump into our interview with former Governor Schweitzer, a quick correction: In last week’s newsletter, Missoula City Council candidate Gwen Nicholson stated that if her campaign proves victorious, she will be the first Indigenous person to serve on city council. That distinction in fact goes to Patrick Weasel Head. Nicholson would, however, be the first Indigenous person elected to that position, as Weasel Head was appointed. We apologize for the error.
During his tenure as governor of Montana, from 2005 to 2013, Brian Schweitzer came to embody the idea of a freewheeling, populist-minded Democrat. He shot guns, drank beer, schmoozed heartily and employed a healthy dose of ranch-friendly metaphors. He delivered speeches at the DNC in 2008 and 2012.
Although Schweitzer largely keeps to himself these days, the confusion and anger surrounding the property tax hike facing Montanans has inspired him to stick a toe back into the world of public commentary. The morning of our interview, he spent an hour on Montana Talks, the statewide radio show hosted by conservative commentator Aaron Flint, in which he laid responsibility for the rate hike at the feet of the GOP. His recent op-ed in Lee newspapers covered similar ground.
While my conversation with Schweitzer begins with his beefs with property tax increase, it quickly turns to a wider range of topics. Read on as the former governor provides some info on an informal and mysterious political group called Giddy Up, offers some criticism of the current Democrat Party and reacts, strongly, to recent accusations made in this newsletter of “in-group” and “out-group” rhetoric being employed among Montana Democrats.
Max: I was hoping we could start by chatting about your recent media appearances. What's inspired you to jump back into the fray?
Governor Brian Schweitzer: Oh, I'm not inspired, and I'm not jumping back into the fray (laughs).
This property tax thing has teed me off. The legislature and the governor had the largest budget surplus in history because both the Trump and Biden administrations poured money into the states to try and prop 'em up.
This Montana legislature, the entire thing was run by Republicans. They had such disregard for homeowners. They cut taxes for all the industrial properties. If you were an out-of-state corporation with a pipeline or transmission lines, if you had energy generation, if you had commercial buildings, your taxes were cut. And then when they got done cutting all of those taxes, they raised taxes on homeowners by $200 million. It's unheard of.
The few people that really understand it, that are elected officials, they kind of like to confuse you because they don't really want you to understand what's going on there. It's been complicated further in that you have special interests [like mining, agriculture and utilities companies] that very well understand tax code, and they lead those legislators around like a bull at a cattle show. That's the way lobbyists treat our legislators.
When they got to homeowners, [the legislature said] we're just gonna raise your taxes by 18%. Get over it.
What do you make of the property tax rebate?
32% of the total homes in Montana—around 400,000 homes—are not lived in by the homeowner. The greatest percentage of those are rented out. Those homes don't qualify.
I own some homes that I rent out. If my expenses go up on my taxes by 18%, I have to pass that along to the renter.
So that means for a third of the houses in Montana, the renters are gonna pay more because of the actions that this legislature took.
I asked my title company to go back through the records and tell me what percent of the homes are owned by corporations, LLCs or trusts. They said it's at least 15%. Among farmers and ranchers—who overwhelmingly have voted for these Republicans—almost 80% [own property designated as corporations, LLCs or trusts]. They had the taxes go up on their home and they're not getting anything back.
And then, they made the rebate so difficult that some people aren't gonna be able to figure out how to apply for it.
People in Montana get a fricking letter from the Department of Revenue that’s addressed to “Montana taxpayer.” They know exactly where I'm living, but they didn't use my name. The name at the top in great big print is Governor Greg Gianforte. It goes into the garbage on day one.
Are there other pieces of the property tax puzzle that you want to highlight?
When they talk about why they raised the taxes on homeowners, it doesn't make any sense, right? After the discussion on the radio this morning, [GOP state] Senator Brad Molnar called me. He told me—and I've heard this from other people—that the discussion around Helena among Republicans is “maintain the pain, maintain the pain.”
What they want is a sales tax; they want people to say that enough is enough and that this is an unfair tax system.
They will say, “Well, I guess the only way to equalize this is to go to a sales tax.” It's talked among Republicans privately, it's been talked about publicly, and that's what they're up to.
I gather you wouldn’t support a sales tax?
No, of course I would not.
In Montana, if you make less than $80,000 a year, you're a net loser [on a sales tax]. You're gonna spend more money on taxes, not less. If you're raising a family in Montana, $120,000 is probably the limit.
If we're going to have all of our policy based on the wealthiest people that have the most resources, that's not the kind of community I want to live in. I want healthy working families, and a sales tax is not gonna get you there.
Some Republican officials have argued that property taxes have risen because of decisions made at the local level. Do you think there's merit to that argument?
Of course there's no merit.
Let’s take the example of a home in Missoula County. In the prior tax year, they paid $3,034. Their new tax is $3,835. It’s an $800 increase. Where's that money going? $194 [goes to Helena]. New money to local governments and schools is $35. And $573 goes to tax cuts for other taxpayers’ corporations.
Only $35 went to local government. And by the way, when we're talking about local government, we're talking about schools.
This 35 bucks, it can only be increased based on inflation rates. So somewhere between 2.5 and 5% is what they can actually raise.
95% of it automatically went back to the state, or it went to tax cuts for people that could afford thick steaks and old whiskey for legislators.
I'm looking out the window right now. I'll tell you what I'm seeing…this is kind of a highfalutin thing that you're doing, so I don't wanna use the wrong language.
If you say so.
I'm seeing a cow, she just lifted her tail and she's squirting some stuff out the back. Republican legislators are saying it’s cow secretion…it’s 100% bullshit. It has no basis in reality whatsoever.
I think my highfalutin audience will be able to pick up what you're putting down. Here’s a hypothetical for you: if you’d inherited this record-setting surplus as governor, what would your priorities have been with it?
Certainly I would've addressed paying down debt. I would pour money into vocational education. I would continue to pour more money into the trade schools. I would pour more money into colleges of technology. I would block the universities from raising tuition. I would invest in mental health because mental health directly affects how much our corrections budget is.
Friends - we hope to see you at our mayoral candidates forum produced by Daisy Chain, with support from Montana Free Press! Sep. 7 at the VFW!
I’ve heard folks mention that you’re part of a group called Giddy Up. I can't find anything about it online. What is this group and what does it do?
It's a very informal group. We don't raise any money and we don't spend any money. We have a Zoom call every once in a while, a few times a month. And we talk about the current political situation in Montana. A lot of folks that have served in government or have been elected officials are involved in this. There's essentially no formal leader of this group. But we're kind of brainstormers.
I'm not the leader of the group. I am part of the group. Many of the people in the group were staff members while I was governor. And we're just all passionate about Montana and we share a frustration that we are not getting the kind of leadership that we need in Montana. And we would like to do our part from the ground up to try and recruit people that will be great leaders. And if we also would like to help people who have already been elected as leaders with the kind of message that's going to work for them.
Are you comfortable mentioning any of the other people involved, or candidates you're interested in supporting?
I don't think so. I suspect most of them would be more than happy to talk about it, but, I'm not gonna volunteer who's involved in it.
I recently spoke to the documentarian and activist Paul Kim for the newsletter. He argued that rhetoric that attempts to establish an “in-group” and an “out-group” based on “Montana values” that are associated with things like shooting guns and riding horses is “increasingly being embraced by white liberals in Montana, particularly the Montana Democratic Party, as a way of making themselves competitive in elections again.” What do you make of that?
In some ways it disgusts me.
We came from different places, but we are part of Montana. If you ride a horse, and I do, and I have, that doesn't make you better or worse than anybody else. And if you are short or tall or brown or you are not, it doesn't make you better than anybody else. We still want good people to come to Montana, wherever they come from…I'm sorry, I get a little passionate about this.
My ancestors came from a place called Strasbourg in Alsace [which is now part of France, but had formerly been part of Germany]. Then, they founded a city in Ukraine called Strassburg.
They grew their farms, they grew their cities. They made Ukraine a very successful agricultural area. These German settlements, they continued to speak German, they continued to go to Catholic churches.
Yet [other] Ukrainians were not very prosperous. And so they started stealing their cattle, burning their barns, harassing them. Starting about 1900, there was a Homestead Act that was going on in the United States, similar to what they had in Ukraine. And there were a hundred thousand of these so-called German Russians who got the hell out of there and homesteaded in Montana, the Dakotas, and then also into Canada. In my case, the first place they ended up coming to was Strasburg, North Dakota. So now Strasbourg, Strassburg, Strasburg.
My grandparents were only there for less than a year. And then they homesteaded in North Central Montana.
During, World War I, Montana passed the Sedition Act, made it against the law to read or speak in German.
During that period of time, we imprisoned 86 people for violating the Sedition Act in Montana [Note: the source, above, offers slightly different figures]. Two years after Montana passed the Sedition Act, it was passed by the federal government with many of the same laws.
[As governor] I apologized on behalf of the state of Montana. And I pardoned every single one of them.
I’m going to be critical of Democrats and why they've been losing support of middle class families. Thirty years ago, if you took a shower at the end of the day, if you were a labor worker, whether you were a part of the union or not, there was an 80% chance you were gonna vote for a Democrat. You were gonna vote for somebody that would stand up for workplace safety, for minimum standards of payment, stand up for the treatment of your family and for public education. You knew the Democrats were on your side.
Today, part of the problem that we have among Democrats is that some of them—not all—they tend to talk down to people. They use words that only people that are in politics would use when they're explaining what's going on. They act as though they're a little better and a little smarter than the people that are voting. And they're forgetting that we Democrats, we represent working families; they don't look or talk like they're representing working families anymore. And it frustrates me.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
I had the pleasure of chatting with the Billings-based singer, songwriter and TikTok sensation Mary Kate Teske for “The Sit-Down” column in Montana Free Press. We chat about how her childhood on a farm near Terry informs her music, her love of living slowly and Montana’s TikTok ban. (Spoiler: she’s not a fan).
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.