HELENA (AP) - A House committee has pumped new life into a bill that would allow NorthWestern Energy, which distributes electricity to Montana customers, to get into the regulated electrical generation business.
The House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee endorsed House Bill 389, by the committee chairman, Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, by an 8-6 vote Saturday and sent it to the House floor to debate this week.
HB389 has already faced an agonized history in its short life. It was tabled twice, once at Olson's request when an amendment he wanted was rejected earlier this month, and again Friday night.
On Friday, the panel tabled and in effect killed the bill on a 7-7 straight party-line vote, with Republicans voting for the bill and Democrats against it.
That vote angered Olson, who said he had a commitment earlier in the week from Rep. George Groesbeck, D-Butte, through Rep. Dave Gallik, D-Helena, to support the bill. Groesbeck, however, missed the vote Friday night because his band was playing at a previously scheduled musical benefit for charity, and Gallik was tied up in another committee meeting.Instead, Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, cast a proxy vote for Groesbeck on Friday night against the bill. It was tabled at nearly 10 p.m. after the panel had spent hours hearing bills and taking executive action.
After the vote, Olson said to the weary committee, ''It sets the tone for things to come, trust me. A handshake is a handshake.''
In an interview afterward, Olson said, ''A man's word's good, and I feel Rep. Groesbeck's word was good. I don't feel his wishes were conveyed here.''
But by midday Saturday, tempers had cooled. Groesbeck supported Olson's bill to break the tie and give it an 8-6 push out of committee.
''I'd like to apologize to the committee and the secretary for my little outburst,'' Olson said.
Said Groesbeck: ''Yesterday was a crazy day. All of us around this table work in good faith. Sometimes our lines of communications get crossed up.''
The bill, backed by NorthWestern, would allow the company as the default supplier providing electricity to much of the state in Montana Power Co.'s former service territory, ''to invest in, acquire or lease a plant or equipment used for the production of energy.''
Before the passage of the 1997 electricity deregulation bill, Montana Power was a vertically integrated utility that generated electricity through its dams and coal-fired power plants. It also owned the electric transmission and distribution lines that shipped the electricity to its customers.
In 1999, Montana Power sold its dams and its share of the power plants to a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., which operates them under the name of PPL Montana.
Montana Power later sold off most of its other assets to other companies, with South Dakota-based NorthWestern Corp. buying its electricity and natural gas transmission and distribution business in 2002.
Olson, a critic of electricity deregulation, said he wants to see NorthWestern become a vertically integrated utility regulated by the state Public Service Commission.
Much of the controversy over the bill has revolved around Olson's amendment that in effect would prevent the PSC from penalizing NorthWestern financially for a past energy acquisition decision.
Democrats on the committee had expressed concern over the unintended consequences the amendment might have.