On what turned out to be nearly the last day of the 2019 Montana Legislature, an April 22 Billings Gazette editorial called on legislators to pass good legislation without tying it to dubious last-minute deals.
Many Montanans communicated similar messages to their state senators and representatives. A majority of lawmakers listened to constituents, who supported a solid proposal for protecting Montana's history without significantly burdening Montana taxpayers. Senate Bill 338 was virtually the last piece of legislation to receive final approval in the last hour of the session after nearly being killed, blasted out of committee, approved on second reading and then delayed six days amid reports that its passage depended on approval of whatever legislation NorthWestern Energy finally settled on in a series of bids to circumvent normal state regulations of the rates it charges 370,000 Montana customers.
Historically, NorthWestern Energy, a South Dakota corporation that is the largest monopoly utility in Montana, has gotten most of what it wants from the Montana Legislature — as did its predecessor, Montana Power Co. Not this time.
In 2019, common sense and consumer protection prevailed — thanks to the public's right to participate in our state government and Montana journalists who reported the facts about this utility legislation. The professional staff at the Public Service Commission and legal staff at the Montana Consumer Counsel analyzed the NorthWestern bills, and pointed out that both SB331 and its predecessor SB278 would shift risk away from NWE shareholders and onto the company's Montana customers. The language of the bills changed, but none of the versions were a better deal for Montana ratepayers than present law.
The demise of SB331 doesn't prevent NWE from acquiring a larger ownership share of the Colstrip Plant, nor is the utility prohibited from acquiring a larger share of transmission lines. Such acquisitions would be subject to Public Service Commission review, if NWE wanted Montana ratepayers to pay for them.
At one point, it was reported that the fate of Medicaid coverage for 96,000 Montanans was linked to SB331. Fortunately, that didn't happen either.
In the end, the legislative manipulations of Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, and Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, and Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, failed. On April 25, the last day of the session, House leadership declined to create a free conference committee to transform a completely different bill into SB331, which had failed to pass the House on a 37-60 vote on April 16.
Attempts to ram leadership priorities through at the session's end make a mockery of the hard work of legislative committees and testimony from Montanans who traveled to Helena, texted or called with their opinions on legislation.
There were also attempts this session to resurrect a pre-kindergarten program that had previously been rejected, and an effort to amend a comprehensive rewrite of state DUI law into another bill after Senate Bill 65 stalled. Although we agree that Montana should fund pre-kindergarten and we support most of the DUI law changes in SB65, we abhor the secretive tactics employed to force support for these bills.
The defeat of SB331 was a victory for open government and the public's right to participate as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution.