By Jon Tester
The ides of March are upon us. I wish the ides of March were upon us. As we come upon the final third of the legislative session, there is still much to be settled in the 57th legislative session. There are some electrical re-regulation proposals intended to solve the problems created by deregulation. Quite frankly, some of these proposals are pretty radical. Rep. Paul Sliter has a proposal that would increase the tax rate on PP&L over 3,000 percent. This could create further problems, especially because PP&L Montana bought the generation assets of MPC in an unregulated free market electrical economy. Legislators need to be sure that before this type of bill passes, the legislature assess the impacts of such a signal on future businesses looking to relocate to this state. The major funding bill HB 2 will be debated and amended Thursday and Friday of this week on the House Floor. This legislation will fund the lion share of state agencies budgets for the upcoming biennium.
SB 134 was passed in the Senate on Friday. This bill reduces the coal severance tax from 15 percent to 5 percent for coal that is sold to new coal-fired generation built in Montana and includes some re-regulation language for the newly generated electricity that is used in Montana. The bill has some problems from my perspective. I felt that 100 percent of the newly generated electricity should be offered in Montana consumers first, before it could be sold out of state. The current text of the SB 134 requires only 50 percent to be offered to Montanans. The bill also states that the 5 percent is applicable for in-state generators. This is a decent idea, but because of interstate commerce provisions in the U.S. Constitution, this provision in HB 134 appears to be unconstitutional and places the coal severance tax at risk of being thrown out entirely and thus not reduced, but eliminated altogether.
Last Friday in the Long Range Planning subcommittee HB 5 and HB 14 were sent to the House Appropriations Committee. HB 5 allows spending authority for building projects that are built with non-general fund dollars. These monies come from private sources, federal sources and state special revenue accounts and are restricted to specific uses. HB 14 funds projects that are funded by state bonds and requires a 2/3s vote by the House and the Senate for passage. A number of projects are listed in both bills because they are partially funded by private and federal funds (HB 5) and they are also partially funded by the state's bonded program (HB 14). Some of the projects proposed in these bills include the animal and range science facility at MSU-Bozeman ($5 million), military armories at Dillon and Kalispell ($7.5 million), a prison reception unit at Deer Lodge ($7.5 million), the applied technology center at MSU-Northern ($4 million), ag experiment renovation monies ($2 million) and a school of journalism building at the U of M in Missoula ($12 million). These are the major projects proposed in these two bills, however they are not the only projects proposed. About $135 million total is proposed in new buildings, renovations and repairs of old buildings and maintenance of recreational sites and programs between these two bills. This is just the first step in many that these bills will go through. Because of the dollars allocated, HB 5 and HB 14 will be subjected to many amendments.
We still have much work to do and time is becoming short. Thanks for all the e-mails and letters. As always, feel free to contact me at Box 243 Capitol Station, Helena, MT 59620 or e-mail me at email@example.com or call me at 444-1444.
Until next week, may you be blessed with health, happiness and moisture.