By Tim Leeds
Local Democratic leaders gathered at the house of former state Rep. Ray Peck this morning for a press conference to condemn energy deregulation, timed to coincide with Gov. Judy Martz's visit to Havre for the day.
Martz and her cabinet are in the Hi-Line city as part of her "Capital for a Day" program.
Debi Friede, chair of the Hill County Democratic Party, said the Democrats welcome Martz and appreciate her offer to listen to questions and concerns of people in the Havre area.
"We truly hope that is the case," she said.
But the greeting from Democrats stopped there. Peck and others said the energy deregulation passed by the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature in 1997 has resulted in higher prices, with even higher prices yet to come when full deregulation takes effect in 2002.
They said higher energy prices are compounding north-central Montana's many problems: good-paying jobs are disappearing; schools and local governments are having difficulty funding their programs; and young people are leaving in droves to go to school and make a living elsewhere.
"There are far too many for sale signs" on the Hi-Line, Friede said.
Brad Lotton, chair of the Hill County Republican Party, said during a phone interview this morning that blaming deregulation isn't accurate. He said bordering states that didn't deregulate have seen higher energy price jumps than Montana has.
"This is just political rhetoric," he said. "It's just more petty politics" to try to take control in Helena.
Peck gave Democrats credit for collecting signatures locally for a referendum to undo the energy compromise worked out by Martz and passed by the last Legislature, and he raised the possibility of a special legislative session to deal with deregulation.
State Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said the issue of energy deregulation is of great concern, adding that since it was passed by the Legislature in 1997 it has been "front and center."
Jergeson said many local families, even those with more than one income, are vulnerable to increases in major expenses like energy.
Peck said he takes issue with calling deregulation a legislative action. It was far too partisan to call it that, he said.
The Republican claim that the Democrats didn't offer any alternatives is false, Peck said. Many good bills were offered by the Democrats in the last legislative session, but the bills never "saw the light of day, never made it out of committee."
State Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, said after the meeting that he thinks the Legislature should have dealt with the issue better from the start, and not consider the option of holding an expensive special session.
"I think we should have dealt with it in the last session," he said. " The fact is, we didn't do our job."
Lotton said Democrats really didn't raise bills to deal with the deregulation issue. Instead, he said, they tried to reregulate energy, which would have taken private property away from the businesses that own it.