By Ron VandenBoom
Higher energy bills are inevitable given energy supply shortages in the western United States, but Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, believes the Republicans worked a lot harder to find a solution to the problem than many critics are willing to admit and he does not believe the power companies dictated terms to the legislature.
Accusations that the Legislature caved in to demands made by the the two major players in the energy debate, PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light) and MPC (Montana Power Company), have been flying hot and heavy since the legislature passed the controversial HB-474. But Wolery said he doesn't see it that way and defended the last minute compromise.
"I'm sure there was much consultation between the governor's office and the power companies," he said.
Wolery said he's sure that several months of hard work on the part of Republican Gov. Judy Martz and Republican legislators went into the agreement that passed the legislature on the final day of the session.
HB-474 spells out the agreement reached between the legislature, PP&L, and MPC. It stipulates that PP&L will sell MPC 500 megawatts of electric power, or about two-thirds of the power requirements of 285,000 small business and residential consumers destained to feel the pinch when the price cap on electric rates is lifted on July 1, 2002 at $40 per megawatt. The remaining third will be purchased at market rates and the two figures combined to arrive at the rate charged to consumers.
The increase for consumers is expected to be about 50 percent and it will guaranteeing a profit for MPC and PP&L.
"That will mean about a $25 to $40 a month increase," Wolery said, referring to the average residential consumer. "About three-fourths of the bill people receive now is to cover the cost of transmission."
The implication being that three-fourths of a customer's bill will remain the same and not be affected by the new rate.
Wolery also noted that it has been four years since Montanans have seen any increase in electric rates.
Wolery acknowledges that the power companies did influence HB-474, but he maintains that it was not them dictating to the Legislature, but the other way around.
The influence of the governor and pending punitive legislation, namely HB-632 the energy re-regulation bill and SB-512, the excess profits tax bill, are what pushed the power companies to reach an agreement, Wolery said.
"They certainly didn't want the excess profits tax," Wolery said. "The legislature forced the power companies to come to terms."
Wolery also said deregulation is not the culprit everyone wants to make it out to be. He cited Idaho and the state of Washington, as examples of two states that did not deregulate that are also experiencing rate increases.
Parts of Washington, he said, are considering a rate increase of 42 percent.
Wolery said that in addition to the work the Martz Administration put into solving the energy crisis, the governor is also working to get help for some of the industries that have closed their doors due to the high cost of electricity.
"She is working to create a 65 megawatt power pool for the businesses that have closed," Wolery said. "PP&L has already offered to contribute 20 megawatts to those that want to come back and Martz is putting pressure on others (namely NorthWestern Company) to put more in the pool."
As the flap over HB-474 prompts partisanship to boil over into finger pointing and accusations that the power companies wrote the legislation, most recently by members of the Public Service Commission, Wolery attributes their zeal to a desire on the part of Democrats to get elected.
"They feel that the deal may keep them from getting thrown out in the next election," Wolery said, adding that the Democrats would have to do really well in the next election to "tip the numbers over."
Wolery said he's confident Republicans will be returned after the next election.
"I guess I'll just say that I hadn't realized the campaign was starting so soon," Wolery said.