Like we said, Otter Creek funds will not support Montana schools

So here it is. After months of public comment in opposition to the Otter Creek coal lease, after public protests from every corner of the state, and even after five activists tried to halt the ‘yes’ vote to lease coal in the State capital building less than a month ago, the Montana State Land Board still leased Otter Creek. Because of the actions of various organizations and individuals opposed to the lease, Otter Creek gained increasing national attention, and in many ways the coal fight waged in Appalachia has begun to move west. But let’s settle for a moment on a more local issue that persisted throughout the Otter Creek sale.

The issue was the awkward shift in Schweitzer’s and the Land Board’s rhetoric regarding how the lease money would be spent. The shift regards Montana’s public schools.

Both Brian Schweitzer and Linda McCulloch, in an effort to move public opinion in favor of the lease, “promised” that the money would be used to support Montana’s public schools, institutions that certainly need all the financial help they can get right now. In fact, according to Article X, Section 5 of the Montana State Constitution, 95 percent of the revenue generated from such a sale should be apportioned to the public school system with the remaining five percent headed for the permanent trust. However, the law has been interpreted by state policy makers over the years in such a way that schools see almost no benefit from the sale of public lands. When money from leases goes into the school pot, the same amount of money is taken out of the part of the general fund that also supports public education. The result for Montana schools in terms of an increase in funding? Zero.

Governor Schweitzer knew this. So, when high school students and teachers began talking about this very slippery and possibly unconstitutional loophole months ago, certain members of the Land Board shut their mouths and song and danced their way off the education funding stage. The theater they turned to next, however, was the Land Board meetings themselves, where the Governor promised money to anybody and everybody that could make him, and his dirty coal lease, look good.

Now, much of the money that was promised on that public stage was, and is, desperately needed by those groups, but in many ways Schweitzer had no real ability to promise Otter Creek coal cash to fund them. His only real decision in the matter was whether or not to cut funding to those groups in this time of financial crisis. It is the role of the 2011 legislature to decide how the $85 million from the Otter Creek lease, or rather the $85 million in relieved general funds, should be spent, not the Governor’s.

So, what was all that brouhaha about promised funds for disabled benefits and teachers and schools across the state? Theater. It was the stage of public relations upon which the façade of public support was erected.

Schweitzer needed this sale to look good, and in many ways the recent blackmailing of public officials was just an attempt to pick up the fallen PR pieces from the sale itself. But, the blackmailing backfired and we were given another round to wage the fight against the leasing of Otter Creek resulting in the retraction of the letter requirement amidst national negative attention for the Governor.

So in the end, schools probably won’t get their money, and many of those who were promised funds by the Governor might not see a dime either. But, if they do, it won’t be Schweitzer’s fault.

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