Democrats Should Take a Lesson From Montana

My firm recently conducted polls in ten different states for the Manhattan Institute on public opinion of state fiscal and economic issues and public sector employees.  While voters generally expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with their state government and with their state’s economy, Montana voters were a notable exception.

Our research showed that the state with the highest ratings in terms of fiscal well-being is Montana.  By a startling 83% to 17%, Montana voters say their state government is efficient.  Montana voters were the only ones among voters in the states we interviewed to say that the economy in their state is headed in the right direction rather than on the wrong track, which they said by a 55% to 37% margin.

I was taken aback by these results, so I spoke to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to get his take on why his state’s residents are optimistic and what he has done to garner such positive support.

Governor Schweitzer said that he believes the key to sound and effective government is good fiscal management.  This means being fiscally conservative when it comes to the state’s budgetary spending, which enables him to be socially progressive on key issues like education and health care.

Montana did not face a budget deficit this year like many states did; in fact, it had a budget surplus for the sixth year in a row. The state’s budget surplus was a result of fiscal prudence that was used to examine every state cost line by line – reducing Montana’s budget by 5%, cutting energy consumption by 20 percent, and saving $6 million by canceling building projects. The state renegotiated state contracts, using their purchasing power to get the lowest possible rate rather than rewarding big donors.  The state saved $4 million by auctioning off state vehicles, and even saved $20,000 by not printing a state phone directory.

Governor Schweitzer also made a point to save some of the state’s surplus in past years rather than allow state legislators to spend it on pork projects, which enabled the state to survive the recession.  Like other states, the Montana government had to freeze employee pay and reduce the work force.  But to show their commitment to and appreciation of their government workers, Governor Schweitzer cut his own salary as well.

Montana’s budget surplus has enabled Schweitzer to cut taxes while investing in key programs like education and health care, successfully defeating Republican efforts to slash the size of government.

As Governor, Schweitzer has increased K-12 education funding by 27% and has begun offering full time kindergarten.  He capped tuition at Montana’s universities and colleges and increased the number of scholarships provided, which has given students more opportunities to go to college.

Additionally, Schweitzer increased the number of children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program by more than 3,000, and the program is now providing quality health care to more than 16,000 kids.  Just last month the governor announced his plan to implement a state run universal health care program in Montana that would center around community health facilities. He says his plan could cut Montana's health care costs by millions of dollars.

As we approach an election year, Montana should serve as a case study for the Democratic Party nationally, as Democrats would be wise to follow Governor Schweitzer’s brand as a common-sense, fiscally pragmatic, centrist.

The combination of fiscal conservatism and social progressivism makes the strongest case for Democrats nationally, and offers the best and strongest path for Democrats to run successfully against Republicans.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.