By Ron VandenBoom
Education and energy still top the list of hurdles facing area legislators, but at last some good news for Montana State University-Northern has emerged.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said Wednesday that while less money than was requested has been included in the bill to fund MSU-Northern's new Applied Technology Center (ATC), it is something they can deal with as the legislation goes through the process.
"And hopefully we can get a few more bucks for the construction of that building," Jergeson said.
The current HB 14 approves $2 million in bonds to be issued to be matched by $2 million in private funds for construction of the building.
Alex Capdeville, chancellor of MSU-Northern, originally asked for $8 million to fund the ATC, but eventually reduced the figure to $6 million, Jergeson said.
"And then the committee reduced it further," he said.
"At least we got it into the bill (and) that's a major victory of sorts," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy.
The bill also contains $2.173 million for upgrades to the heating and air conditioning system in Cowan Hall.
"This can give prospective students and a number of our private and external partners renewed confidence that the legislature is interested in the maintenance of MSU-Northern as a vital institution of higher education in Montana," Jergeson said.
Maintaining reasonably priced electricity rates is also on the minds of area legislators as they continue to struggle to come up with new ways to easy the pain to residential customers when the price freeze is lifted in 2002.
"We've got a long, long, long, way to go," said Tester, referring to the work remaining to be done before a reasonable solution is likely to be found.
Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, has proposed SB 502 which through a somewhat complex method would establish a state power authority as a wholesale purchaser and seller of electricity and allow the state to buy or build electrical generation facilities, transmission lines, or distribution systems.
Jergeson said it is one approach he thinks the state ought to have "under serious consideration." He said he believes many of the other bills currently under consideration are meant to beat PP&L into submission and have serious "takings" issues associated with them.
Both the Montana Constitution and the U.S. Constitution forbid the "taking," or confiscation of privately owned property, including company profits, without due process of law and the payment of fair market value.
Several of the current bills confronting the legislature propose the taxing of wholesale power, or excess power company profits, and redirecting the funds into consumer relief. HB 445, by Rep. Dave Gallik, D-Helena, is one such example.
The bills could also violate portions of the Constitution concerning a states ability to regulate interstate commerce.
"They invested in the facilities with the thought in mind that they would be able to market into an unregulated market," Jergeson said, about the power companies. "And to take that property value away from them, you've got some serious legal problems."
Other legislation, such as Billings Republican, Sen. Royal Johnson's SB 143, has been amended so many times to satisfy PP&L that even Johnson is reluctant to give it his support, Jergeson said.
The Legislature is still to hear a proposal from the state's co-ops as to what they might be able to do to service more of the state's consumers, Jergeson said.
Tester and Jergeson both have noticed that in the meantime, there seems to be a lot of "interesting negotiations and dancing going on around here."
Many of the bills the Republicans hate are being kept alive simply as a bargaining tool as they try to get PP&L to come to terms, Jergeson said.
Tester referred to the dance as more of a hammer to try and get a decent contract for consumers.
"Everybody here knows the situation and the decisions are going to be difficult," Tester said. "...Short term decisions are going to be difficult because takings issues are part of the mix."