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Guest view: Legislature shouldn't bail out NorthWestern Energy at ratepayer expense

Guest view: Legislature shouldn't bail out NorthWestern Energy at ratepayer expense

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Gary Buchanan

GARY BUCHANAN

Senate Bill 379 is a bill that is anti-jobs and anti-economic development. For a Legislature supposedly focused on the Governor’s rightful concerns for entrepreneurship, it's a real step backward. Higher electricity bills will harm efforts to attract businesses to Montana.

I support helping Colstrip, but not at the expense of every other business in Montana. I have been part of the Billings business community for more than 40 years and have served a half-dozen governors, both Republicans and Democrats. In the early '80s, I was Montana's first Director of the Department of Commerce. We had the sixth-lowest cost of electricity in the country and were able to attract and keep refineries, smelters, mines, and tech companies. We, of course, gave away our competitive advantage with deregulation.

Almost 20 years ago, I warned the Montana Public Service Commission of NorthWestern Energy’s impending bankruptcy. NorthWestern was actually flying its CEO home every weekend to Florida by private jet. Ironically, the Chairman of the PSC at that time is now the CEO of Northwestern Energy — Bob Rowe. He should know better than to push such an anti-business bill and rely on corporate welfare to help his poorly prepared utility.

This bill is even worse than last session’s Senate Bill 331, which the Legislature wisely killed. The sponsor of that bill was defeated in the last election. Angry at my opposition to SB 331, a senior executive at NorthWestern Energy asked me, “What do you want me to do, Buchanan, burn firewood?” Pitiful to have such an inadequate power portfolio.

The fact that NorthWestern's portfolio is ill-prepared does not justify the company sticking small and large businesses, irrigators, and industrial operations with uncontrolled costs. Believe me, companies looking to come to Montana will look at energy costs and the inability of our State to control them. Senate Bill 379 is simple. It will raise electricity rates without anyone being able to protect Montana consumers and businesses from these increasing monthly bills. Higher electricity rates are simply bad for Montana.

The Legislature and the governor should protect Montana’s economy and ability to attract entrepreneurs, which means they should defeat Senate Bill 379.

Gary Buchanan of Billings has served as director of the Montana Department of Commerce. He is also former chairman of the Montana Banking Board and the Montana Board of Investments.

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