By Ron VandenBoom
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, during a recent trip to Chester discovered that the top concern on the minds of people he met was energy.
"It was energy with everyone I talked to," Tester said. "... Education maybe came in second."
Energy prices are expected to rise from 200-300 percent during the second half of next year after a negotiated price freeze is lifted in June, 2002.
Tester said he and other members of the Senate spent part of last weekend discussing the energy issue with Republican Gov. Judy Martz and came away from the meeting believing the governor wants as many pieces of energy legislation cross her desk as possible.
"I think she wants to have a lot on the desk so she can pick and choose (what she will sign)," Tester said. "Then she can use it as a hammer."
A hammer in the sense that the bills might be used to extract favorable concessions from the energy providers such as PP&L and NorthWestern Corporation.
"But I don't know what kind of a card we've got to play," Tester said.
A joint committee has been formed that will sort through as many as 20 various energy bills so they can come up with maybe eight that they can choose from, Tester said.
The committee will attempt to eliminate duplications or contradictions in the bills and provide a clear choice to the Senate and the governor.
Tester said that he applauds the recent announcement by NorthWestern that it plans on constructing three new gas fired 80 megawatt generators and has developed a plan to provide some low cost power to to businesses.
But he said he wonders why, when Montana already produces more power than it consumes, NorthWestern should keep power here and sell it for less than the market rate.
He said he is also concerned that using natural gas to fire the generators might just add to the problem of gas shortages leading to higher prices for that commodity as well.
Tester said he favors the use of co-ops to provide for Montana's energy needs emphasizing that co-ops are owned by its Montana customers.
Tester points to two bills, SB-508 and HB-646, as examples of bills that would give property tax exemptions to co-ops that construct generation and delivery facilities and agree to sell their product at a cost based rate for a specified period of time.
"It's something that should be on the table," Tester said, adding that he doesn't believe the bills are, as he put it, "on the radar," because it's not what the governor wants.
Specifics about what the governor does want are uncertain at this time.
Politically, Tester said he sees the results of this legislative session as being favorable to the Democrats come the election campaign of 2002. But he emphasized that, while the problems facing Montana might be advantageous politically for his party, he is also a consumer that will have to face all of the same problems every other consumer will have to face.
"I still got to go out and make a living in this environment," he said. "It impacts everybody."
While energy may top the list of legislative concerns, one of the bills Tester sponsored, SB-196, a country of origin bill, has been so badly mutated from its original form that he is not sure whether he still supports it.
The bill was intended to make it possible for consumers to identify Montana and American produced meat and agricultural products when they shop.
The bill, while perhaps favorable to Montana producers, was heavily lobbied against by the food industry and amended several times as it traveled through committee.
All penalties were removed from the bill and the implementation date postponed until 2003. The labeling of fruits, vegetables, and grains was removed from the bill and hamburger was also deleted.
"It's a joke," Tester said.
Tester would not commit himself to trying to kill the bill.