By Tim Leeds
State House Rep. Michelle Lee of Livingston, addressing a large crowd at the Hill County Democratic Party meeting Tuesday, found support for her "Dump the Deal" effort to repeal the Legislature's last-minute compromise bill on future electrical costs.
Nora Nelson of Havre said before the meeting that she hadn't read the law, House Bill 474, and didn't know everything about it. But, she added, "from what I've heard about it, I think I'd like to see it rescinded."
"You know we'd raise hell if we had a sales tax that high thrown at us without having a vote on it," Chuck Mikulecky of Rudyard said. "I still think we should have a vote on it."
Supporters of Lee's Referendum 117 have until Sept. 21 to submit the required number of signatures to county governments. The requirement to place the referendum on the ballot in the November 2002 election is at least 20,510 signatures, which must include 5 percent of registered voters in 34 of the 100 legislative districts.
"We do need help," Lee said at the meeting. "We need lots of help, we need lots of signatures and we need them quickly."
If 61,530 signatures in at least 51 of the 100 legislative districts are collected, the law would be suspended until voters cast their ballots in the 2002 election. But Lee said that goal is probably unrealistic.
Lee, a Democrat who organized the grass-roots effort to put the repeal of HB474 on the ballot with Rep. Chris Harris, D-Bozeman, said the bill was passed on the 90th day of the Legislature after Montana Power Co. announced a deal with Pennsylvania Power and Light Montana on the 89th day of the Legislature. "A wonderful deal," she said, which would raise power rates 50 percent.
MPC said at the time the agreement with PPLM would result in an estimated 50 percent power increase in average Montana customer power bills, an estimate revised in August to about 30 percent. The release stated that the MPC-PPLM agreement anticipated positive legislative action.
Lee said MPC and PPLM asked the Legislature to guarantee no financial risk to the companies, with Montana taxpayers bailing the companies out if they take a loss, and to stop the Public Service Commission from doing its job and protecting consumers.
"And that's exactly what the Legislature did in the 90th day," she added.
The provisions of HB474 establish a default supplier of electricity in Montana, authorize the Board of Investments to invest in new generation projects, makes the state liable if the default supplier fails to pay PPLM, provides for the default supplier's recovery of costs of supplying electricity, and creates an authority to sell bonds for the creation of new power facilities.
Supporters of HB474 on Thursday challenged Lee's criticism of the bill at a meeting of the Transition Advisory Committee, a state panel on restructuring of the electric industry.
Counsel chair Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said learning the issue would take more time than most voters have, and that letting the voters decide the merits of the bill would be like asking them to decide whether the state Department of Revenue conducts adequate audits.
The MPC press release in April stated that legislative action was needed to ensure the companies' ability to provide electricity at competitive prices, prices substantially below market rates at the time. Jack Haffey, MPC president and chief operating officer, said in the release that the high cost of electricity is due to an imbalance of supply and demand, not because of the deregulation of electricity in Montana approved in the 1997 Legislature.
Lee said Tuesday the voters of Montana didn't have any say over what would happen to their rates under the deal.
"This was done without disclosure, without public hearings and House Bill 474 is the vehicle for the deal," she said. She added that it's not fair that the taxpayers of Montana have to make sure the power companies can't lose any money.
Ray Peck, former state representative from Havre, told Lee he wanted to applaud what she and Harris are doing.
"This is a big issue in Montana," he said, "and I think the people of Montana should be able to get involved."
A Democratic Party committee met after the main meeting to plan for gathering signatures.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.