By Greg Jergeson
Its often been said that employers in Montana, both private and public, have been able to compensate their employees with "blue sky." In other words, even though wages and salaries may be lower than other states, the cost of living here is also lower and the beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities available in Montana are also an important part of the value for living and working in Montana.
Montana's beauty continues to exist. Outdoor recreational opportunities are available, although some argue those are increasingly limited. But that is not the primary subject of this column.
I would submit that the cost of living in Montana is no longer lower than it is in other states. In those areas of Montana experiencing rapid growth, housing costs are approaching west coast levels. In Montana's declining regions, the lower housing costs are reflective of the depressed economy there. While a 20-mile commute may still only take 30 minutes in Montana, compared to hours in California and elsewhere, more Montanans are finding that they have to commute some distance to find a decent job.
As the legislature considered "electricity deregulation" during the 1997 session, I frequently expressed skepticism about the argument that going into the national market for electricity would lower those costs in Montana. We had the advantage of cheap energy and now we're witnessing its loss. The national market, largely fueled by events in California, is much higher than we are used to and deregulation has exposed us to those events beyond our control.
So here we are. We've lost the last economic advantage that enabled us to compensate employees with "blue sky." Electricity deregulation has forced several large employers to lay off their workers. And when the regulated market for small business and residential customers expires in 2002, the rest of us will be thrown into the soup as well.
In my first column, I mentioned that responding to this crisis created by "electricity deregulation" would be a major matter for this session. That is clearly coming to pass. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have created select committees to deal with the issue.
This past week, Gov. Judy Martz appointed a special task force to deal with the issue. I applaud her for that decision. I am less positive about the direction she may ultimately recommend as policy, given who she selected for that task force. The task force is dominated by individuals with major ties to the private investor owned utilities, both present and past. Only one of the members represents the rural electric cooperatives. Only one clearly and unequivocally represents residential consumers. Only one represents irrigators. The remainder, either personally or as representatives of special interests, are responsible for where we are now. I'm concerned that the same cast of characters who led us down the primrose path to deregulation is now empowered to find a non-solution to the problem.
Last week, the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate articulated three principles that should guide legislative consideration of solutions to Montana's energy crisis. While offered by the Democrats, I believe Republicans honestly interested in a solution can also embrace these principles.
First, keep energy reliable and affordable for homeowners, businesses and workers. We need to examine whether to freeze rates for Montana's industrial customers in order for them to put Montanans back to work. We need vigorous antitrust investigations into price manipulation and profiteering with any excess profits being returned to the customers.
Second, the solution should be developed by Montanans, for Montana. We should consider options such as new power generation dedicated to Montana users. We should support a power supply provider capable of providing power to small customers on a cost-of-production basis, perhaps organized as a cooperative or utilizing the existing cooperatives in Montana.
Third, we should abandon the model put in place by Senate Bill 390 from the 1997 Legislative session. The scenario put in place by the 1997 session doesn't just need a little adjustment, it needs a major overhaul.
No doubt the saga will continue. I'll keep reporting on these and other legislative actions as they unfold.