By Ron VandenBoom
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said he was discouraged recently when the Senate Finance and Claims Committee turned down his amendment to create a contingency fund for state agencies and universities that would pay for rising energy costs.
"We all know they're coming, but we don't know exactly what they're going to be," Jergeson said.
The plan would have created an account under the State Budget Office from which funds could be distributed as the bills came in. The amendment would have provided about $6 million.
Jergeson said he was told the funds could be provided by the next session of the legislature as a supplemental appropriation.
The mood of the committee points out the tightness of the state budget and the concern over an anticipated jump in energy prices that has already started to affect some businesses not covered by the state's rate cap. It is a problem that is expected to up the cost of electricity 200-300 percent to about 285,000 residential consumers after the rate freeze is lifted in June, 2002.
Last week's announcement by NorthWestern Corp. that they plan to construct a 240 -magawatt generating plant near Butte is a good sign to Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, who said he is optimistic that Montanans will not suffer as drastic of an increase as some have predicted.
One-third of the new plant is scheduled to be completed by this fall with other sections coming on line within the next couple of years.
"I don't see costs are going to triple or quadruple," he said. "Maybe double."
NorthWestern Corp. has announced it plans on selling power at market value during peak hours and selling at low cost during off hours.
Current legislation designed to help consumers deal with the looming energy crisis continue to be considered and both Wolery, and Rep., John Musgrove, D-Havre, said they that feel there will be energy legislation pass the legislature this session. Neither, however, feels that anything currently proposed will solve the state's energy problems.
Jergeson and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, have both said that some kind of legislation will pass, but they also see problems with many of the current solutions.
More than a dozen pieces of legislation are currently being considered in the House and the Senate to deal with the energy issue. Several mandate the taxing of power company profits or megawatts generated and using the money to help consumers. Others deal with reregulation of the industry by the Public Service Commission, and one, SB-243, would enter Montana into a long-term contract with a fixed rate for electricity.
SB-243 has been so mutated from it's original intent that even the bill's sponsor, Sen. Royal Johnson, R-Billings, has called for it to be killed.
Jergeson is on record as saying he would probably vote for one of the bills that would tax company profits although he also has said he believes there are some legitimate takings issues and perhaps constitutional issues involved with the bills. He predicts lawsuits if they pass.
Jergeson said he believes allowing co-ops to become producers has the greatest potential to for a lasting solution because Montanan's would be the owners of the companies.
"Unless it's controlled by Montana people, you're going to have out-of-state interests controlling our power," Jergeson said.