By Ron VandenBoom
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester returned to his Big Sandy area farm over the weekend feeling that the most critical issues facing the 57th Legislature were not adequately addressed.
"I think schools got short-changed, and the universities certainly got short changed," Tester said Monday in a telephone interview from his home. "And health care ... just wait until the next session and hold on to your boot straps because it snowballs and it all deals with money with matching funds from the Federal Government..."
Typical of Tester's feelings about the 2001 legislative session was the last minute deal struck between MPC (Montana Power Company), PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light), and the legislature a deal that managed to satisfy enough lawmakers to pass the Senate 26-24 and the House 60-39. But Tester believes the agreement falls short of the guaranteeing Montanans affordable electric rates and also short changes consumers.
"I think we could have done better," Tester said Monday morning in a telephone interview. "If we had used the legislation as leverage, we might have gotten a better deal."
The leverage Tester referred to is SB-512, which would have imposed an excess profit tax on PP&L and HB-547 which would have allowed the PSC (Public Service Commission) to once again regulate the cost of electricity to consumers.
"At the very least we should have left it (SB-512) on the books, so if they started gouging we would have something to fall back on," Tester said.
The deal, as passed Saturday in HB-474, will allow MPC to buy 500 megawatts of power from PP&L at $40 per megawatt with the remainder being purchased at the going rate on the open market. MPC currently purchases about 750 megawatts of power from PP&L. The two costs will be combined to determine electric rates for the 285,000 residential and small business consumers currently protected by the rate freeze and agreed to when PP&L acquired MPC's generating facilities.
Tester said the cost of electricity on the open market last week reached $405 per megawatt and conservatively rates could rise as much as 54 percent.
While a 50 percent increase in electric rates might appear attractive when compared to the 200-300 percent increases predicted earlier in the session, Tester believes the legislature could have done better.
"It all depends on what you consider reasonable," Tester said. "If you think PP&L making it (electricity) for 2 cents a kilowatt and selling it for 4 cents a kilowatt is a good deal."
Tester said he can not consider a 50-60 percent increase in electric rates to consumers to be "a good deal."
Tester also objects to the fact that nothing in the agreement addresses industrial users of electricity that have had to lay off what he said were thousands of workers in the last year.
"I think the legislature was sold a bill of goods," Tester said. "It was all done behind closed doors and late in the session."