A southwest Montana state senator proposed a bill Wednesday that would move the state's Natural Resource Damage Program from Helena to Deer Lodge as retribution for the transfer of a motor vehicle division bureau from Deer Lodge to Helena last year.
Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, said Deer Lodge lost 30 good jobs for no good reason when the attorney general consolidated the Title and Registration Bureau in Deer Lodge with the MVD's other offices in Helena.
He said moving the NRDP would be appropriate considering most of the state's pollution sites lay on either side of Deer Lodge, and that it would provide economic justice for the town's newly unemployed residents.
"Being a Serbian we're known for payback," Vuckovich said in his opening remarks before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, the only statement in favor of the Senate Bill 204.
Representatives of the NRDP, the attorney general and the state conservation districts spoke in opposition to Vuckovich's bill.
Harley Harris, program manager and supervising attorney for the NRDP, took the opportunity to explain the role of his program as the legal and technical experts who for 30 years have worked closely with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency and the governor's office to litigate Superfund damage claims from polluters.
Harris said NRDP's 11 staffers meet on a daily basis with federal and state colleagues from other offices who are headquartered in the state capital. Another is stationed in Butte.
Harris said moving the program to Deer Lodge would not only hinder their ability to cooperate with partners but would also cause many specialists in the program with roots and mortgages in Helena to quit, damaging its effectiveness.
"They're not the kind of folks you can just find anywhere at any time," Harris said.
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Chief Deputy Attorney General Alan Joscelyn said his department values the face to face contact they have with NRDP, and that moving the program's employees "would really impact the quality of service."
Jeff Tiberi, policy director of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, said the state has pollution sites all over to deal with, and that positioning the NRDP 50 miles west to be in the middle of the Clark Fork River Watershed Superfund corridor is an illogical way of serving Montana.
"We'd all be in Lewistown if we were centrally located," Tiberi said.
Trout Unlimited's Southwest Montana coordinator Brian Ohs also opposed the bill, but said he appreciated Vuckovich's commitment to his constituents. He said what happened to MVD workers in Deer Lodge would be the same as what would happen to NRDP workers under Vuckovich's bill.
"We wouldn't want to see these people uprooted simply because of a turf battle," Ohs said.
Some senators on the committee were confused by the purpose and language of the bill. Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, had to have Vuckovich clarify for him that it was MVD jobs that were moved from Deer Lodge to Helena, not NRDP jobs.
Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, was confused over language in the bill that called for the creation of the NRDP. Harris explained that the program was created by executive order, and that a bill drafter from the Legislative Services Division explained to him that for the Legislature to exert control over the NRDP it was necessary "to create us" within the Montana Code.
Vuckovich closed out the meeting by saying that the state must provide for the economies of its outlying towns, not just Helena, and that he was just trying to bring back something from the Capitol for his constituents.
"What I'm trying to do is rectify a wrong that was never addressed," Vuckovich said. "I had to make my statement, and I have done so."