Two local legislators told the people attending a video conference in Havre Wednesday that the Legislature is taking its time and will listen to all sides when it acts on a bill that would give power companies the right to use eminent domain.
“Right now, I can’t tell you if that bill is going to come or go or if something else will come or what, but we know we’ve got to pay attention, and we’re trying,” said Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre.
The issue is a bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, which would allow utilities to use eminent domain to take private land for power lines.
Now the state can condemn land, paying fair market value for property to be used for public benefit. The bill would define public utilities as state entities able to use eminent domain.
“Why should a private company be given the right to use eminent domain to condemn their way across anybody’s place?” Herb Vasseur, president of the Montana Land and Mineral Owners Association, asked. “If they pass that, I as an individual could claim to be a public servant or whatever and demand the right to use eminent domain to condemn my way across somebody’s property. It’s not right.”
Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, said he and Hansen and Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, are all about personal property rights.
“The dilemma that we're running across at this point — we’ve got a bunch of guys working on it — everybody wants the new form of energy, the wind energy, but the problem is, we don’t have an extension cord big enough to get it across the state.
“We understand what you’re saying and we’re listening about personal property rights,” he added.
Hansen said the issue was a judge’s ruling that caught everyone off guard.
“It was a surprise to us when we got here, really … ,” she said. “The original idea (for the bill) wasn’t a big problem, and they (thought they) could just pass the bill and it would be no big deal, and, obviously, that isn’t the case. It is a big deal.”
She said that under state law, a power company can use eminent domain, “with the state’s blessing.”
Once the utility goes through all state and federal regulatory requirements, the permits have been issued and the state has set the power line route, the company negotiates with private land owners where the line would run. Hansen said that, if negotiations fail, the company can get permission from the state to use eminent domain.
The ruling, now on appeal before the state Supreme Court, ruled against the Canadian company trying to build a tie line across Montana when it used that process, she said.
“This is kind of a problem. It wasn’t caused by the Legislature or the governor, it was kind of a problem that was caused by the courts,” she said.
The Legislature now hopes the Montana Supreme Court will move quickly on the appeal to show what is constitutional or unconstitutional.
“Nobody wants to make bad law, and (this) might be bad law, so we don’t want to do it unless it’s good law,” she said.
She added that it is not a partisan issue.
As Republicans, she and her fellow members of the GOP support business, energy production and building transmission lines, but also stand for private property rights.
On the other hand, the Democrats have long-supported green energy, but they need some way to get the energy out of the state.
“So this is not just a party issue, it’s not just the Republican party’s problem, its the Democratic party’s problem, and we don’t want to cause a mess in the state.
“So we're hoping that the Supreme Court will get on their stick and give us some guidance, and, if they don’t, we’re going to have to figure out how to make it work so Montana can move forward with power without running over private property owners,” she added.