Secretary of State Brad Johnson told fellow Republicans on Friday that Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposal to build a plant to convert coal to liquid fuels is "a 10-year-long, $10 billion pipe dream, built on 70-year-old technology."
Instead, Johnson told the Montana GOP convention in Billings he intends to ask the state Land Board on Monday to direct the state Department of Natural Resources to prepare a comprehensive plan, with deadlines, to develop the state-owned coal tracts in Otter Creek. Johnson is the lone Republican on the Land Board, while four Democratic state elected officials, including Schweitzer, also sit on the board.
The federal government traded that 500-plus million tons of coal near Ashland in southeastern Montana to the state of Montana in exchange for buying out a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park.
Johnson said he agrees with those who say Montana can lead the way in alternative energy and clean coal technology.
"There are available to us some very real and very exciting new technologies in those areas," he said. "I want you to know that we are aggressively pursuing them. The time has come to do more than just talk."
However, he pooh-poohed Schweitzer's pet project as impractical.
Schweitzer has said such a facility would use state-of-the-art technology, not that used by Nazi Germany in World War II, and that a number of companies have contacted him about the possibility of building a plant.
Johnson took another shot at Schweitzer over the governor's appointments to environmental and regulatory boards.
"We won't meet those challenges by stacking boards and commissions with members we know will obstruct responsible resource development," Johnson said, echoing the complaints of some business groups.
Since taking office in January 2005, Johnson has talked mostly about election laws. This was one of his first major speeches that covered other topics as well and went after Schweitzer and Democrats. Johnson, who doesn't face re-election until 2008, signaled he will be out on the campaign trail this year plugging for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, Rep. Denny Rehberg and Republican legislative candidates.
Montana's low-key office of secretary of state, with its limited duties and frequent opportunities for travel across the state to promote voting, has been a launching pad for its occupants to seek higher office. However, no Montana secretary of state has parlayed it into a victory in a top-of-the-ticket office for decades.
Johnson also blasted Schweitzer and the 2005 Legislative session for "spending money like it was going out of style" and raising spending by more than $1 billion in the 2005 Legislature. Democrats controlled the Senate 27-23, while the House was split between the parties, 50-50.
He asked rhetorically why the tax revenue is still pouring in and the state is sitting on a $400 million general fund surplus, despite the Democrats' big-spending habits.
"The answer is a simple one," Johnson said. "It is because of policies enacted by Republican Legislatures and implemented by Republican governors for nearly a decade and a half."
Johnson suggested it might be time to follow former Gov. Marc Racicot's lead when the surplus built up in the mid-1990s. Racicot said, "Nobody told us to keep the change" and worked with the Republican-controlled Legislature to return some of the surplus to taxpayers.
He said that's a concept "that apparently escapes this administration and the Democrat members of the House and Senate." Schweitzer has disputed the use of the term "surplus" to describe the state's budget situation, noting that the state has more than $1 billion in obligations to bail out its troubled public employee and teacher pension funds.
"If we look at history, we cannot help but understand that when Republicans are in control in Montana, Montanans prosper, and when Republicans are in charge of America, Americans prosper," Johnson said.