What appears to be a political spat between House District 71 representative Bob Wagner and Governor Brian Schweitzer feels more like a sucker punch for town officials in Sheridan.
Last week Schweitzer signed a bill helping to fund municipal and infrastructure projects around the state. However, in signing the bill Schweitzer line item vetoed a handful of projects including two in Madison County.
Among the vetoes was $750,000 of grant money for Sheridan’s wastewater treatment plant. The other project funding Schweitzer axed was for Blaine Springs Bridge, south of Ennis.
“I’m incredibly disappointed with the governor for flagging Madison County and the town of Sheridan because of the constant rabble rousing of our legislator who really wasn’t looking out for Madison County interests,” said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz. “Because of Mr. Wagner’s impropriety through the legislative session and because the governor felt the need to slap Mr. Wagner, the people of Madison County are going to suffer.”
Sheridan has struggled to get a new wastewater treatment facility since 2007 when the Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued an order to the town demanding they upgrade or get a new wastewater facility. The order also prohibited the town from hooking up any new structures to the sewer system.
After some fits and starts, the town is ready to move forward with the project and the plan was to get the majority of the funding through a low-interest federal loan program. However, the $750,000 in grant money from the state was a key piece of the project, said Sheridan Mayor Dean Derryberry.
Since the town is under a DEQ order, the project has to move forward. Without help from the state, the town will likely have to borrow the money through the federal loan program. However, that could mean another rate increase for Sheridan residents, Derryberry said.
Last year Sheridan’s sewer rates went from $16 to $40 a month. If the town has to secure another loan, those rates will go up another $10 a month, he said.
The grant Sheridan was hoping to secure and which Schweitzer vetoed was a Treasure State Endowment Program grant. These grants are used for infrastructure projects in communities around the state. Sheridan had already used some TSEP money to help with their recent water project. Elsewhere in Madison County, Twin Bridges, Virginia City, Harrison and Ennis have all used TSEP money to help with wastewater treatment facilities and water projects. The TSEP money is appropriated by the legislature every other year.
In an effort to help legislators make a decision about which projects to fund, the Montana Department of Commerce ranks TSEP projects. And that’s the confusing part for Sheridan and Madison County. Both the wastewater project and the Blaine Springs Bridge were ranked high – 3 and 5 respectively out of more than 50 projects.
Madison County was looking for about $700,000 to help with replacing the Blaine Springs Bridge south of Ennis, which is old and unsafe to the point that emergency vehicles can’t travel across it, said Schulz.
“They were good projects,” he said. “They should have stood on their own merit and their own need.”
Derryberry has made numerous trips to Helena during the past two legislative sessions to testify to lawmakers about the importance of Sheridan’s projects. Three years ago he requested letters in support of their grant applications from both Wagner and state Senator Debby Barrett. Neither responded to his request. He has also requested an audience with Schweitzer to discuss the importance of the project, but has never heard a response.
Needless to say the news last week of Schweitzer’s veto was frustrating to Derryberry.
“All it did is make life difficult for the people who are the most innocent and that’s residents of Sheridan,” he said.
Didn’t you hear? All politics is local
The news of Schweitzer’s veto was also frustrating to Wagner, who said he supported the projects and getting the TSEP money back in the state budget.
Wagner believes Schweitzer came after Madison County because he was a vocal opponent against two other bills the governor wanted passed – a state bonding bill (HB 439) and a bill authorizing state pay raises (HB 13).
“It’s basically retaliation,” Wagner said. “He’s playing partisan politics … It doesn’t have anything to do with local support for those projects”
Schweitzer couldn’t be reached by press time to explain his reasoning behind the vetoes, but his communications director Sarah Elliot referred to a letter Schweitzer issued when he signed the bill with the line item vetoes.
“I have used three tests to determine which of those projects receiving appropriations under the Treasure State Endowment Program (TSEP) to fund or to veto,” Schweitzer wrote. “First, I vetoed projects located in legislative districts that did not receive the support of local legislators. This was the first analysis I used when considering whether limited state resources would be used to support the project.”
This was his reasoning behind denying the TSEP projects in Madison County.
Though Wagner said he supported both Sheridan’s wastewater treatment plant and the Blaine Springs Bridge projects, he voted against HB 351 two different times – both on third readings after voting in favor of it two different times on second reading.
He voted against the bill on the final reading April 18 when it passed the House 82-17 because he didn’t support the additions to the bill by the Senate. HB 351 had passed the House in March and then went to the Senate, where it was amended and then came back to the House for another vote, Wagner said.
He didn’t like the changes the Senate had made and even though he voted for the bill on the second reading, he voted against it on the third reading to make a statement, he said.
His vote against HB 351 isn’t a vote against Sheridan or the county, but rather a vote against the bill, Wagner said. Both projects should have been funded and are good and worthy projects and Schweitzer shouldn’t have vetoed them.
“It makes no sense for him to veto those outs and say ‘Well these don’t enjoy the support of the local legislator,’” he said.
Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart agrees – Schweitzer shouldn’t have vetoed the projects. But he doesn’t see how Wagner helped Madison County residents by voting against the TSEP bill.
During the session Wagner championed issues that didn’t have much to do with Madison County, like returning to the gold standard for portions of the state budget and requiring long-form birth certificates from candidates seeking federal office.
“From my standpoint the breakdown occurred because of Mr. Wagner’s standpoint on things that don’t directly relate to Madison County,” Hart said.
When they voters in Madison County send a legislator to Helena, it’s crucial that their interests are represented well, Schulz said.
“Wagner has never even met Schweitzer,” he said.
Wagner defended his record, pointing to two bills that he sponsored that came from direct requests from his constituents in House District 71 – a bill dealing with day care immunization requirements, which died in committee; and a bill to privatize Cataract Dam outside of Pony, which was passed and signed by Schweitzer.
“Maybe Dave Schulz doesn’t agree with my political philosophy and that’s his right,” he said. “I bring bills on behalf of constituents and people who request them.”
But Schulz is right, during his two sessions in Helena Wagner has never met Schweitzer.
“I’ve never spoken with the governor,” Wagner said. “He never asked me if I supported those two projects.”
Unfortunately, the politics of Helena and those between Schweitzer and Wagner are now having real impacts on local communities and projects, Schulz said. People need to consider that during the next election cycle.
“I don’t think we can do anything today, but I certainly think come election time we can be more considerate of the person being a true representative of Madison County,” he said.