By Ron VandenBoom
Freshman Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, told the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club Friday that the creation of a State Power Authority could be one of the most important aspects of the energy package, HB-474, passed by the 57th Legislature.
"But we don't hear much talk about it," Wolery said. "I think it's a real important part of it."
The State Power Authority, according to Wolery, provides incentives through low-interest loans through the Montana Investment Act for up to 450 megawatts of new generation. The Authority has the power to issue state revenue bonds to back such projects.
Wolery told the Pachyderms that it is estimated to cost about $1 million per megawatt to build a power generation plant. He said the low interest loans would only apply to the construction of new generation facilities that could provide power to Montanans.
Plans are already in the works for NorthWestern Company to construct three 80-megawatt plants in the state. The first is expected to come on line by November, 2001 a date well before the July 2002 date when the current price caps are lifted and Montanans can expect to see their electric bills increase by at least 50 percent.
Wolery acknowledged that it might be un-Republican, but suggested that it might be time for the state to consider building its own power generation facility.
"Maybe that's what we need to do to protect ourselves," he said, adding that once the plant was operational, the state could contract with someone to run it.
Wolery defended the Republican line, however, on the deregulation issue. He told the crowd that, although it hasn't worked very well, current energy problems are not the fault of deregulation.
"There's other states like Washington and Idaho that haven't deregulated and they're facing increased costs, too," he said.
Part of the problem, Wolery said, is low water levels due to the drought. Hydroelectric power plants are operating at only 50 percent of
"I think we need to move forward on this energy thing on a nonpartisan basis" he said. "The rhetoric has just got to be put aside by either party and we need to come up with some solutions."
Solutions are something Wolery said the Republicans tried to create when they passed HB-645.
HB-645 created a state energy pool that is expected to give relief to large industrial consumers of electrical power by providing them with low cost energy.
Wolery was unable to provide exact details on how residential customers might be impacted, but he did say they will be given some incentive to conserve electricity.
"If you save over what you used last year," Wolery said. "The difference will go into the pool and that will be passed on to industrial customers."
Wolery also credited SB-134 with lowing the coal severance tax for companies that use the coal for in-state production of electricity.
The Republican education plan was also defended by Wolery who told the crowd Montana ranked second in the region in student to teacher ratio and fourth in the nation in K-12 spending as a percent of personal income. He also praised. He noted that the number of students in Montana dropped from 174,000 in 1997-98 and to 157,000 today with no projected likelihood of any increases in the near future.
Despite a decline in the number of students, the Republican controlled legislature increased spending on K-12 education by more than $30 million and increased higher education spending by more than $16 million. Republicans also passed SB-390 which included the state "flex plan" that will give K-12 schools another $5 million over the next two years and HB-495 that will provide for greater funding of schools through the state borrowing the money to buy the mineral rights to state lands from the coal tax trust fund and investing the money.
Wolery told the Pachyderms that he enjoyed his first experience in the Legislature, but was not yet ready to announce whether he would seek another term in Helena.