By Jon Tester
Monday will be day 62 of this 90-day session. Most of the action this week took place in the House with its deliberations on HB 2, HB 31 and HB 121. HB 2 is the general appropriation bill for state government services, including Corrections, Education, Health and Human Services, Natural Resources and Commerce and general government. It appears that the House was busy amending this bill, as I counted some 55 amendments that were offered during the debate on this bill. HB 31 and HB 121 are two competing educational funding vehicles. HB 31 funds education at a 4 percent increase for the first year and a 7 percent increase for the second year of the biennium. HB 121 funds education at a 0 percent increase the first year and a 3 percent increase the second year of the biennium. Both of these bills passed the House and were sent to the appropriation's committee for further review. It is particularly important that HB 31 passed to ensure that the increased educational funding for both years is seriously considered when the final, hopefully amended, educational funding vehicle returns from the appropriation's committee.
One of the challenges of writing this weekly update is to give an update with an enough explanation to be thorough without boring the reader to death. In last week's update, I explained the many different new building projects and building renovations at the various university campuses and the state correctional facility proposed in HB 5 and HB 14. What I didn't explain is the energy and maintenance concerns. A number of these projects deal with and solve past deferred maintenance problems (problems with maintenance that the university did not have the funds to fix during past years). In the case of the Applied Technology Building in Havre, one building and a portion of another requiring high maintenance costs will be demolished. In all of the new building proposals, there will be an overall increase in square footage in classroom space (in the case of the prison - cell space). Considering the energy problems we confront at this legislature, there will be an increase in energy costs when these projects are completed. The issues of increased energy liabilities are of concern and were debated extensively in subcommittee and will be debated further as HB 5 and HB 14 goes through the process. In Long Range Planning we also heard HB 12, which allocates some bonding money for energy retrofits to help make the state buildings more energy efficient. As I have explained in earlier updates, the deregulation fiasco will impact everyone. It has been an albatross that has already been hung around those businesses that have chosen the open market and it will impact all public and private entities in the end with no easy solutions in sight in the short term.
It seems that all energy issues are very complex at this point in Montana. That being said, I will try to simplistically explain a Public Service Commission ruling this week. The Public Service Commission proposed for public comment a ruling that, if there is no competition in the energy marketplace, then the Commission may continue to regulate electricity supply until workable competition exists, and through July 2004 this supply regulation has ties to the generation plants MPC sold to PPL. This interpretation of the Montana statute, if upheld in the courts, could offer a short-term solution to the projected electrical increases. The fact that we have no competition in the electricity marketplace currently, gave the PSC the grounds to make this decision. There is some disagreement in the halls as to the potential legality of this decision. I can guarantee that this decision, if implemented after the public comment period, will be litigated extensively. This decision potentially impacts Montana Power Company/Northwestern Power and PP & L Montana. Between these two companies, they have an army of attorneys. Ultimately, this will end up in the Supreme Court's lap. My hope is that the Supreme Court will make its decision quickly or the electricity problem may be compounded.
The country of origin bill, SB 196, was heard in House Agriculture last Tuesday. It had a very good hearing. Unlike the Senate committee hearing, there were a half dozen opponents in the House hearing. This hearing reaffirmed my belief that this is a step in the right direction for Montana ag producers to maintain their market identity of their products in the marketplace. With the current foot-and-mouth epidemic in Europe, I feel it makes this legislation all the more timely. The federal government's attempts over the last two decades of making all food stuffs the same regardless what country they are derived limits unfairly both producers and consumers in this country.
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. The legislature obviously hasn't been effective in our moisture mandate - we'll have to work harder on that in the last month of this 57th legislative session.