In the 1980s we had the enviable job of pitching Montana’s energy costs as the sixth-lowest in the United States. That low cost allowed us to attract and retain aluminum smelters, silicon plants and other major industrial plants which flourished and bolstered our State’s economy.

In 1997 our state Legislature, the Public Service Commission and governor gave it all away with energy deregulation, which has proven to be the biggest economic mistake in Montana’s history. During those years we were serving on the Governor’s Montana Power Authority (Buchanan), as budget director (Lewis) and as a political reporter for The Billings Gazette (Gransbery). We witnessed Enron’s manipulation of both the governor and the Legislature. After Montana Power Co. went bankrupt, Buchanan warned the Montana Public Service Commission of the impending bankruptcy by NorthWestern Energy. Ironically, when the commission was chaired by NorthWestern Energy’s current CEO.

Here we go again. Fred Thomas, the Republican majority leader, is the same legislator who sponsored and led the last deregulation disaster. Masquerading Senate Bill 278 as a revenue bill, committee leadership has rammed the latest disaster through committee, and it is now on the way to the floor. SB278 would impose millions of dollars of risk on Montana ratepayers. It exempts the PSC from their regulatory authority. It essentially allows NorthWestern and another “unidentified owner” to take a risk-free position of ownership of the Colstrip assets for $1. All of the risk is transferred to Montana ratepayers.

Personally, we would like Colstrip to remain an asset in the Montana electric grid. SB278, however, creates enormous risk to the state’s future. It is a reckless opportunity pursued by NorthWestern and another “unidentified owner”, and this approach jeopardizes any real solution to Colstrip’s woes.

NorthWestern should be upfront and its executives should be personally testifying as to their motives — instead of taking a walk at the second hearing. They should also be required to identify any other parties involved in crafting this ill-conceived legislation.

The Public Service Commission is noticeably absent from this discussion, and should be testifying directly to the Legislature as to why the PSC might be willing to give up their constitutionally mandated regulatory authority over monopoly utilities in Montana. Their job is to protect ratepayers, where are they?

Just like over 20 years ago, the bill comes into the Legislature late, it is poorly written, sponsored by and benefiting the same cast of characters from the 1997 deregulation debacle, and it has not been adequately communicated to the citizens of Montana. Legislators owe it to their constituents to communicate the contents, specifically the risks.

We must learn from previous mistakes. Let's not do this again.

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Gary Buchanan, a Billings businessman, served as the first director of Montana’s Department of Commerce as well as working for half dozen governors, both Republican and Democratic. Dave Lewis, of Helena, former Republican state senator, was budget director for both Republican and Democratic governors. Jim Gransbery retired after reporting on politics for the Billings Gazette from 1983 to 2007.


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