Day 12, 13 & 14: Helena and a surprising lesson in bi-partisan cooperation

A picture of me with Lieutenant-Governor John Bohlinger and Teddy the Bull Moose. More on our visit further down.

We left New Oreleans on Wednesday enroute to Helena, the capital city of Montana. Wednesday was spent dealing with matters at home including a caucus meeting and catching up on media calls.

The two days we spent in Helena (Thursday and Friday) were packed with meetings, which is why I’m delayed with this posting.  It has occurred to me how fortunate I am to be getting briefings from senior members of the federal and state civil service, who have been so incredibly generous with their time and insights. This is one of the tricky problems in leading an Opposition party – figuring out how government really works. It just isn’t possible in Alberta to call up the Agriculture ministry or the Environment ministry and ask for a briefing on issues from senior members of the civil service. There is a firewall between the bureaucracy and elected politicians, particularly those elected on the opposition benches. It’s a weird irony that I have more access to senior civil servants in a foreign country than I do in my home province, but such is the nature of a parliamentary system. The good news is, in Montana I’m meeting with folks who know an awful lot about Alberta.

At the department of Agriculture we talked about the common problem we face in assessing and dealing with food safety risks. The XL Foods meat recall is a case in point. When a large packer is distributing multiple products to multiple locations, using multiple transport vehicles, and multiple storage facilities, contamination can occur at any step of the way, including in the home or restaurant of the individual consumer. In hindsight, when all the facts are known, it is easy to pinpoint where the contamination occurred. In the thick of it, the process of identifying the precise site of contamination can be incremental, painstaking and time consuming.  (I remain hopeful the XL plant will meet the CFIA requirements to reopen next week – for the sake our industry and the workers in Brooks – and we can analyze then whether the investigation process was faulty and what, if any, improvements need to be made to the recall process.)

We then met with Department of Environment officials, which was responsible for approving the Montana leg of the Keystone pipeline project. Governor Brian Schweitzer has been a big proponent of the project, which certainly helped it along, albeit with a few bumps. The department had some valuable insights about how and why the process got delayed here and derailed elsewhere, and what proponents of large projects like this need to remember when they are dealing with multi-state regulatory agencies in the future. Much of what I learned here I’ll be talking about at my Chamber of Commerce speech in Calgary on October 9. I received some very good insights.

A highlight of the visit was meeting with Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger. An LG role in a state is not the same as in a province – it’s essentially a second in command to the Governor, more like a Deputy Premier. Due to term limits, Schweitzer is not running again and Bohlinger is retiring from politics as a very spry and energetic 76-year-old. The Schweitzer-Bohlinger political marriage was an unusual one by any standard. Schweitzer is a Democrat, Bohlinger is a Republican. Between the two of them and a Republican legislature they have managed to run record surpluses for the last 7 years, despite the challenges of the local economy. It is rare to see genuine bi-partisanship, but I’m discovering Montana is a topsy turvy state. Bohlinger (as a Republican state senator) drew the attention of Schweitzer in 2002 when he opposed cuts to daycare for unwed moms, cancelling drugs to those with mental illness, and reducing support for meals on wheels. Contrast that with Senate candidate Jon Tester – a Democrat – whose campaign materials talk about standing up for Montana veterans and 2nd amendment gun rights. Politics is a bit upside down in this state. Also notable: the legislature is a part-time job. The legislature only sits from January to April once every 2 years. Montanans clearly have low demands of their state legislators. They want them to balance the budget and take care of business. It’s kind of refreshing actually.

At the Montana Environmental Information Center we met with some of the environmentalists who want to shut down our oilsands. Though we fundamentally disagree on their main objective, I give Executive Director Jim Jensen credit for this – he walks his talk. He has retrofitted his home with solar panels to reduce his reliance on the grid and cut down on natural gas use, and he drives a Prius. I told him I believe a significant transition away from hydrocarbon fuels won’t happen for 50 or 60 years, and as long as consumers demand the product Alberta will be a supplier of it. He believes the transition has to happen faster than that, and is a champion of solar, wind, hydrogen (using wind for the electrolosis process), biodiesel (from Brazilian sugar cane not corn), and electric cars. Against all odds, we found two areas where we agree:  that solar powered hot water heaters are a good idea (I hope to install one myself when I replace my tank) and that cap and trade is a bad idea. I wish environmental groups would spend more time focussing on practical, achievable targets that move incrementally toward their  goal. Stopping Keystone and Gateway would not reduce American consumption of oil. If the US doesn’t get their oil from Alberta, they will get it from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is bound to be a jurisdiction that does not care so much about environmental quality, workplace safety or civil rights.

We enjoyed dinner that night at the home of a Major with the National Guard and his guests, who were virtually all Democrats. After 3 hours I left even more confused about what makes a Democrat a Democrat. A lot of the issues they spoke about sounded like what I’d expect Republican priorities to be. It was awesome to have a home-cooked steak dinner – the Major is a terrific chef.

On Friday, I met with the Water Rights Bureau and the Montana Association of Land Trusts. It warmed my heart to hear so much talk about the need to respect private property rights and the lengths they both go through to do it. Our current Alberta government could use a lesson in this.

The Water Rights Bureau is pioneering a new process for transferring water rights between existing users and new uses, which I’ll keep an eye on as we face similar water shortage pressures in southern Alberta. The town of Manhattan,MT is going through similar problems as Okotoks (albeit on a smaller scale), having outgrown their water licences and in need of new water rights to continue their growth.

The Montana Land Trust has 2.1 million acres of private agricultural land under easement, which are voluntary, permanent arrangements that protect lands from future subdivision and development. The Lewis and Clark county passed an Open Space Bond policy by public referendum in 2008. Under it, property owners pay an additional $3.40 per $100,000 in assessed value on their property tax bill, with the proceeds (up to a limit of $10 million) going to help compensate landowners for placing easements on their land. The Alberta Government prefers to use draconian legislation to freeze land and steal its value by prohibiting use or development, through bills like Bill 36 and Bill 19. However, the way the land trusts do it is the way it’s supposed to be done. If the public wants to preserve private land, they need to pay for it. Would an Open Space Bond pass in Alberta? I wonder.

Our final stop of the day was at Helena Food Share, the town’s local food bank program. We pulled a shift packing groceries and helping customers out to their cars. It was a surprising array of clients: a single dad with two kids who was in back in school taking computer training. A down on his luck senior who was clearly living in his car with his aging dog. A middle-aged man recently diagnosed with throat cancer. Poverty has many faces. It felt good to be able to provide a small measure of help.

On to Bozeman over the weekend. As I mentioned before, the program does not book meetings on the weekend, so we’ll be back at it on Monday. I’m especially looking forward to our meeting with R-CALF.

Expenses: If you didn’t read the press release for this trip, no doubt you might be wondering, who’s paying for this trip? Here’s the answer. The costs are covered by the US Department of State, and they estimate the expense at $9,080 US for the 21-day program. It looks like it will turn out to be a bit less than that. With politicians’ travel expenses very much in the news lately, I thought you’d be interested in knowing my expenses as we go.

I have always said that international travel is an important part of the Premier’s job and, as Official Opposition Leader and International and Intergovernmental Affairs and Aboriginal Relations Critic, I think it is a necessary part of my job too. Knowing how the political system works in the US in particular – our biggest customer and trading partner – is increasingly important as we watch the Keystone pipeline project grind its way through the approval process. Knowing how this process works, including the interplay between federal, state and local jurisdictions, and the impact of NGOs on the entire process is vital information for an Alberta political leader to have.

My criticism has not been about the fact that the Premier and her ministers are taking international trips, it’s the eye-popping price tag associated with them. You’ll notice this trip budgets out at about $432/day, whereas most ministerial trips lately have been costing in the range of $2000/person/day (or more).

Here are my expenses for Helena, MT:

Day 12

$632.28     Checkout of Omni Hotel (4 nights at $139/night+tax)

$39.90     Internet (4 days at $9.95 per day)

$16.00     Taxi to airport

$60.00     Baggage Charge

$9.09     Breakfast at New Orleans Airport Cafe

$440.61     Flight from New Orleans to Helena, MT

$32.95     Dinner at Riley’s Irish Pub

Day 13

$15.oo     Lunch at No Sweat Cafe

Day 14

$25.00     Lunch at Windbag Saloon

$20.00     Dinner at Quarry’s

$1290.83     Total for Days 12, 13 & 14

*Dinner on the second night was at a private home. Josh, our IVLP program leader, has rented a car for transportation so there are no cab or taxi charges for this leg of the trip.