HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he is closing a trade office in Taiwan in favor of virtual offices in three countries as a way to cut costs and get more exposure for Montana products— but critics argue the move will be seen as an insult to Taiwan and will cost too much in lost business.
Schweitzer said Wednesday it costs $90,000 a year to employ a full-time representative in Taiwan, a post the state has staffed since 1988. Schweitzer said he instead plans to open virtual office space in Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong for half as much.
He said local phone numbers will be answered by a receptionist working on contract for the state of Montana. Requests and messages would be forwarded to state officials, who would handle trade dealings. Trade delegations visiting the countries would still have access to office space, the governor said.
"We are just trying to save the state of Montana money," Schweitzer said. "If there's some legislators that are concerned about this, you can assure them that not only will we have more marketing opportunities in more countries in Asia, but we will also decrease our costs."
The governor's office said that a trade office in Japan is being left untouched.
Schweitzer is making the move to close the Taiwan trade office even though he has just 10 months left in his term. The governor said even small cost-savings are part of the reason the state's projected surplus is nearing $500 million.
"I have been criticized for decreasing lease costs, selling state vehicles, decreasing the costs of energy, and even not printing state phone books," Schweitzer said. "The bottom line: I have cut the costs of running government."
Senate President Jim Peterson said the decision was made without advising legislators, the business community or talking to Taiwan. He said Schweitzer's decision to close what has been a staple of relations with a big trade partner was too abrupt.
"This is a long-standing relationship that deserves greater discussion than a spur-of-the-moment decision by the governor," Peterson said.
Peterson said he hopes the decision to reduce ties with Taiwan is not related to Schweitzer's efforts to woo Chinese investment. The two countries have a long-standing feud.
"You would hope that's not the case, but you have to wonder," Peterson said. "I am in support of increased trade with China, but I don't know that I want to do that at the expense of Taiwan."
Schweitzer criticized Peterson and other Republican legislative leaders for taking a trade trip last year to Taiwan at the expense of the Taiwanese government as part of the relationship. The governor, who was departing Wednesday for a trip to Ireland paid for by the state of Montana, argued the lawmakers were most worried about protecting their "junkets."
Peterson countered that Democrats have taken the trip in past years, and argued that it has been important in further developing the relationship. He said the Taiwanese government is worried about the move, and is sending a representative to Montana on Friday to talk with business leaders about the move.
The governor's office said there are no meetings scheduled with the Taiwanese official, who did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Schweitzer said the move has no bearing on the state's relationship with Taiwan. He said he did not advise the Taiwanese of his decision.
Montana Chamber of Commerce president Webb Brown said the Taiwanese employee fired by the state had developed important relationships over a long period of time. The region is an important destination for Montana grain and other products.
Schweitzer recently returned from China with plans to forge a relationship with business leaders in that country for a new pork processing plant in Montana, perhaps in Shelby.
"I think it's great. I think we need to look at mainland China, but I would hate to do it at the expense of Taiwan," Brown said. "I know from a cultural standpoint that this is going to be viewed as a slap in the face to Taiwan, but then maybe mainland China said there needs to be a slap in the face."
Schweitzer said the decision was not influenced at all by his dealings with the Chinese.
"No one has ever suggested in China that I do anything at all vis-a-vis Taiwan," the governor said.