By Jon Tester
The 57th Legislative Session wrapped up on the 90th day last Saturday. More than 1,544 votes were taken by the time the session ended. During the week we heard individually from the 15 termed-out senators and their views on the legislature, the legislative process, and the evolution of that process during their years of service. The state of Montana will be losing much knowledge and experience in the Senate with the departure of these legislators. Since this is the final article describing this session, I am going to step back and give you my impressions generally. There were three major issued this session - energy costs, educational funding (elementary, secondary, and higher education), and money.
A deal was struck between Montana Power and PP&L Montana for electricity prices come July 1, 2002, when deregulation is fully implemented. This deal was contingent upon punitive legislation being killed by the legislature and the Public Service Commission (PSC) backing off of their attempts to re-regulate. The Senate and House complied with this request through the tabling (killing) of SB 512, an electrical excess profits tax, and the passage of HB 547, a bill that limits the PSC's ability to regulate electrical prices. The electrical deal allows MPC to purchase 500 megawatts of electricity at $40 per megawatt. Montana residences and small businesses that haven't opted for deregulation use about 750 megawatts total. One-third of the load, or 250 megawatts, will have to be bought on the open market. The cost of electricity on the open market this month has been as high as $405 per megawatt. After the two rates are blended together MPC and PP&L lobbyists told us the final rate would be around $60 per megawatt. This electrical deal between MPC and PP&L amounts to an increase conservatively figuring of about 54 percent in the total electrical bill for those customers that are served currently by MPC. This agreement does nothing to address the large industrial customers' electrical needs. These businesses chose to enter into the deregulated market in 1998 and are the companies that have had to lay off thousands of Montana workers due to high electricity prices.
Educational funding is always a hot issue in the legislature and this session was no exception. The legislature ended up funding education at $31 million total or an increase of 1.88 percent in state funding if decreases in enrollment are not considered. Overall, if decreases in enrollment are considered, state funding for K-12 education was reduced. The way the funding mechanism for schools work, if your school has an increase in enrollment, then the amount of money the legislature allocated for your school this session is plenty adequate. If your school had a decrease in enrollment, then the amount of money the legislature allocated for education this session is totally inadequate. From a university funding point of view, the funding from the state will leave them looking at a 9 percent or 10 percent increase in student tuition to maintain their programs.
Money is the primary factor that influences our decisions in the legislature. We went up until after the elections with a big surplus in the state budget. Sometime in November the revelation came out that there was no surplus and this turned out to be a reality. There was some money available, and the legislature chose not to account for it in the revenue projections. In the last two weeks of the session, it was found that the Department of Revenue had in excess of $29 million out in uncollected taxes due to a computer software problem. The legislature projected that only $9 million would be collected. There were additional monies from a variety of sources that were not considered in this session that would have been considered in past sessions. These projections kept the pressure on the budget to keep the funding for K-12 education, university funding and health services at a minimum.
Every Monday morning when I sit down to write this article, I don't know what I am going to write about, and it seems by the time I'm done, I've written far too much - this is the case again this morning. This session has been a tough session for me. I have learned much and I thank you for giving me this opportunity to represent you in the Montana Senate. We have a citizen legislature in this state and that is good. Now the legislators become farmers, business owners, teachers and laborers to live with our neighbors in the atmosphere that we helped create as legislators. My hope is that what we have done in the Montana legislature this session has made Montana a better place. I will leave my assessment of this legislative session to that statement.
As always thank you for all your letters and correspondences and more importantly, thank you for your prayers. If you have any questions, feel free to call me at (406) 378-3182, write me at 709 Son Lane, Big Sandy, MT 59520, or e-mail me at jontester@Yahoo.com.
Until next time, may you be blessed with health, happiness and moisture.