By Ron VandenBoom
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, is looking forward to the last week of the 57th Montana Legislature. In fact, he would have been happy to have gotten out the day before Easter, but lingering energy issues and county funding are not done haunting the beleaguered Legislature just yet.
Tester said that all energy legislation and the county funding bill, HB-124, also known as the "Big Bill," are going into free conference committee. There they can be rewritten into as cohesive a package as possible to meet the concerns of the Legislature. They will then return to the floors of the House and Senate for final vote.
It's a last ditch effort on the part of the Legislature to settle the toughest issues this session, Tester said.
Tester said he hopes that the bills will be able to ward off a jump in energy prices that is expected to range from 200-300 percent. The jump is anticipated to hit residential consumers July 1, 2002. It is a jump that has already hit many of Montana's major industries that contract for power on the open market. Hundreds of layoffs and several plant closures have resulted due to the cost of energy.
More than a dozen pieces of legislation will be considered by the committee.
"We've worked for 85 days and now we're going into committee," Tester said, "It just goes to show you how tough the issues are."
Tester's comment is indicative of the attitude of many legislators who feel there is no easy answer to the energy dilemma.
"If there were easy answers, they probably would have already been passed," Tester said.
One piece of legislation, HB-632, a re-regulation bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Mood, R-Seeley Lake, is an attempt to do away deregulation. As it is currently written, HB-632 would allow the PSC (Public Service Commission) to once again set prices for businesses already affected by deregulation and for the 285,000 residential customers that will be impacted next year.
Tester said he fears the bill will face stiff opposition from the utilities, who are likely to take it to court on a takings issue.
Takings issues are also factors in various other bills that would tax power generated in Montana and sold by the utilities out of state. Those tax revenues would then be used to offset in-state utility bills.
Tester is also concerned about takings issues with another piece of legislation, SB-134, which would cut the Coal Severance Taxes to any company building a coal-fired generating plant in Montana. The reduction could be more than two-thirds, from 15 percent to 4 percent. Out-of-state users would continue to pay 15 percent.
Tester said he is sure the energy issue will lead to a special session of the Legislature a sentiment he shares with fellow Democratic Senator Greg Jergeson of Chinook. But first, he said, "we've got to have a solution."
A solution is the one thing this session of the Legislature has been hard pressed to find.
Tester has not been pleased with the over-all performance of the Legislature this session an observation he made about two weeks ago, when he noted that there seemed to be a lot more frustration and confusion this session.
"I don't mean to be critical of the leadership," Tester said, "but I don't think they came down here with a clear vision of what they wanted."
Tester is fearful, too, of what the 1.88 percent increase in school funding will mean for K-12 education in Montana.
The nearly $31 million increase, spread over the next two years, could severely hurt education, Tester said.
"I think we're really at a critical time, and I think there really is a danger," he said.
Tester said he sees schools dropping upper level classes and even student testing scores dropping due to a shortfall in funding. He added that many smaller rural schools could also be forced to drop football or basketball as a result of funding shortfalls.
Home schooling is also a possibility for many students who may no longer receive the same quality of education in school that they can get at home. More people looking to home schooling will also mean fewer students and less money for schools already suffering from declining enrollments.