Schweitzer, Putin and Chavez

In the last state legislative session, some of the excess tax collection of $900 million was from oil and gas taxes. (Imagine that: $900 million extra! That amounts to $3,600 extra per family of four in receipts to the state coffers. On top of the billions the state already takes in.) High international oil prices are to be thanked. With that excess, lawmakers were able to give homeowners $400, and spend a lot more than usual. It is a popular time to be a governor. Our governor has managed to make it appear that he is being generous, and running a wonderfully smart administration. Spending money makes one popular, especially easy money like that. It makes one wonder how popular the hapless Judy Martz could have been had her administration occurred when oil was at $100 a barrel.

Schweitzer is not the only elected official using high revenues caused by high oil prices to strengthen his grasp on power. Vladimir Putin in Russia is hugely popular, partly for the same reason. So is Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. This week Putin maneuvered a way to keep his hands on the reins of power for at least four more years, and perhaps several terms after that. This week Chávez tried to gut his country’s constitution and get named President For Life. His plan narrowly failed. That he got close proves how popular you can become with petro-taxes.

The Wall Street Journal puts it this way: The Putins and Chávezes of the world owe their popularity to bread-and-circus tactics: the canny manipulation of the media,…and above all the benefit of having petrodollars to shower on favored constituencies.

For oil producing states like Montana, Russia and Venezuela, it is a fine time to garner favor, buy votes, and strengthen a grip on power. So that’s what Schweitzer, Putin and Chávez do.