By Judy Martz
There has been no greater privilege in my life than serving as Governor of this magnificent state.
The Legislature tackled this complex energy issue by developing legislation that allows Montana to create lasting, market-based solutions. Unfortunately, some individuals are mischaracterizing the decisions and, in some cases, being downright untruthful with the citizens of Montana. Sadly, those same people don't want a solution they want a political issue for the next election.
I want to set the record straight. Protecting Montana's consumers is and always has been my top priority, because electricity is a life necessity. Frankly, Montana Power Company didn't do us any favors when they sold their electric generating assets to an east coast corporation with no connection to our land, our resources, or our people. It left us in a difficult position.
In the meantime, we must move forward. I cannot change history. I cannot repeal the 1997 law, despite what some people want you to believe. What I can do is sincerely address these issues by taking one of two fundamentally different paths.
The first path is to move aggressively toward market-based solutions that will increase competition. The opposite path is to re-regulate and tax these companies at unprecedented levels. We have chosen the path toward market-based solutions, but I first want to explain why we haven't chosen the re-regulated, tax-them-into-submission route.
First, I asked my Director of Revenue to thoroughly review SB 512 which would have implemented a 90 percent tax on generation sold above $40. Director Alme, despite enormous efforts, couldn't make the legislation pass constitutional muster. However, there are alternatives we are exploring should PPL fail to live up to the obligations they made.
Second, HB 632 sponsored by my friend Representative Doug Mood would have eroded the PSC's authority and would have implemented an inappropriate risk shift. Utilities would have been forced to buy high priced electricity and sell it at low rates, just as California did. The result is utility bankruptcy, huge state debt, and higher electricity rates for consumers. I will never put the taxpayers and consumers of this state in that position the exact position that Governor Gray Davis is being forced to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to resolve.
Again, the path we have chosen is to continue aggressively working for market-based solutions for the benefit of consumers.
For the short-term, to help get our workers back on the job, the Legislature passed HB 645 to create a pool of affordable electricity that will be used by our large customers as a bridge to lower cost electricity. I thank Representative Jeff Mangan, a Democrat, for working with us.
This pool of electricity will come from conservation savings and allocations from power generators. PPL has pledged 20 megawatts and we're working with Northwestern Corporation to get 240 megawatts into the pool by October 2002. We're also working to convince suppliers to contribute power to the pool, as well as to convince Montanans and government to conserve.
The most significant piece of legislation for consumers, and sadly the most misunderstood and misinterpreted, is HB 474. This important legislation contains several critical elements of a long-term solution that will help obtain affordable electricity for all Montana consumers.
This bill protects consumers! Low income and fixed income Montanans will benefit from continued investment in energy assistance. Furthermore, it names the default supplier, extends customer protections, and allows customers to return to the default supplier.
Second, this legislation creates a critically necessary power authority for consumers. By issuing up to $500 million in revenue bonds, the power authority can construct or acquire generation and transmission facilities that will provide all Montanans, like my parents and others on fixed incomes, with affordable power in the coming years.
Third, the legislation keeps the Public Service Commission's authority intact. I would not have signed any legislation that diminished any of the Commission's existing authority to assert jurisdiction over MPC and the generating assets.
Fourth, the bill provides a balancing of risk between ratepayers and the default supplier a critical component in making sure Montana taxpayers aren't forced to bail out Montana Power Company because of bankruptcy.
HB 474 is a comprehensive strategy that, combined with a lot of hard work that my administration is ready to do, will help Montana get through these challenges. The sponsor of the legislation, Representative Paul Sliter, deserves our thanks.
Consumers are protected until July 1, 2002. We have just fourteen months. I humbly ask each and every willing Montanan to help my administration implement the tools the Legislature gave us. Together, we can ignore those who complain about my plan to increase our energy supply, yet don't have any solutions of their own. If we cannot succeed in making the market work in a timely manner to protect Montana consumers, I am prepared to make the difficult decisions to choose a new path.
But I believe that if every willing Montana will help me, we will increase competition. Our Montana way of life the only way I know will guide us in the right direction to get the job done.