Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Now to hear from BNSF

"Populist" is not a dirty word at Montana Headlines. Large corporations can be as abusive of Montana citizens through monopolistic or unfair practices as can the government, and state (as opposed to federal) government in particular can play a constructive role in reining in such abuses.

Thus when learning that Gov. Schweitzer reports giving BNSF executives a hard time about what he depicts as unfair freight rates for Montana's agricultural products, Montanans should be inclined to be supportive of the governor's efforts to communicate the discontent of Montana farmers.

More intriguing is the governor's report that he proposed to those BNSF executives that they should explore a coal-to-liquid fuel project in Montana to help them with their fuel cost and fuel supply and that they reportedly got back to him expressing interest in such a project.

If this is true (and Montana Headlines has no reason to believe that it is not), it would seem to be a worthy project. Schweitzer led off the discussion, per his report, by making the executives unhappy about the cleanup of Livingston diesel spills (most of which predated BNSF) and the freight-rate dispute.

This would seem to imply that the governor's gamesmanship with BNSF starts with him trying have them start out "in the hole" in the discussion, perhaps leaving the state in a position of not needing to give as much to get such a project going.

This does leave the governor in the position of having proposed a project that will have to stand or fall on its own capitalistic merits -- which is as it should be. If a coal-to-liquid project makes business sense to BNSF, then everybody wins. If it doesn't make sense, for the state to underwrite it in some way is corporate welfare, which Montana can't afford.

The best thing that Montana can do to attract this and other business is not to give special, selected tax breaks or funding. It is rather to reduce property, corporate, business equipment, and income taxes across the board as much as possible. Republicans will be happy to help the governor out on that. And the GOP should give credit where credit is due if he suggests new private initiatives that are eventually embraced by businesses.

Now, we just need to hear from BNSF itself, getting its account of their conversations with the governor and their concrete proposals. Presumably, the Gazette it hard at work getting that information and will be reporting it soon.