HELENA — Opponents of a new state law that allows companies to condemn private property in the path of new power lines have begun gathering signatures to suspend the law and bring it to a public vote.
A coalition of groups against House Bill 198 has formed the group VoteFor125. Group spokeswoman Kate Ord of Dillon said the secretary of state approved the group's petition language last week.
A bill passed in April allows a power line company with a state certificate for its route to use the power of eminent domain to condemn property along the route. Since the bill passed, Tonbridge Power Inc. has filed condemnation complaints against at least 44 landowners along the path of a power line being built between Great Falls and Alberta.
"The sooner we repeal this retroactive, special-interest granting of new rights to foreign entities that confiscate private property, the better off all Montana property owners will be," said Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, a supporter of the effort to suspend the eminent domain bill.
Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, who sponsored the bill, said Montana law allows eminent domain to be used for 45 public purposes, including power transmission, and that state law provides plenty of safeguards against abuse.
"It doesn't differentiate between selling electricity out of state or in state," Peterson said. "It doesn't differentiate between foreign corporations or domestic corporations."
To place the bill on the November 2012 ballot for repeal or approval, VoteFor125 backers must gather at least 24,337 signatures of registered Montana voters including the signatures of at least 5 percent of the registered voters in at least 34 of Montana's 100 house districts.
To suspend the law until the vote occurs, they must gather the signatures of at least 15 percent of registered voters in at least 51 of the 100 house districts by Sept. 30.