By Ron VandenBoom
Is it just an energy acorn that's about to strike Chicken Little in the head or will the sky really fall on Montana's cheap electric rates July 1, 2002?
Comments made by former U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer at the Hill County Democratic Woman's Club dinner Saturday night suggest Montana's energy woes are not an acorn and it's the Republicans who have lost their chance to keep the sky propped up.
Speaking before nearly 100 party loyalists, who paid $12 a ticket to hear the former candidate's address, Schweitzer outlined his impressions of the Republican controlled 57th Legislature and presented his view of what it means for Montana and the Democratic Party.
"They (the Republicans) have been driving the bus for 12 years, the bus is in the ditch, and it's time to take away the keys," Schweitzer told the applauding crowd.
Schweitzer, who called energy deregulation "the greatest tax increase in the history of this state," blamed the Republicans for what he said placed Montana's future at risk with a promise of lower prices for electricity a promise that he estimates will cost Montanans $180 million a year.
"And this legislative session just finished with the (Republican) legislators and the governor telling us that they have succeeded because now your electrical rates are only going to go up by 50 percent," he said. "What happened to cheaper electricity?"
Schweitzer defined this "tax increase" as being different than others. He noted that this tax increase "won't build any roads, won't educate any kids, won't create any new jobs." Instead, he said, this $180 million would go directly to corporate headquarters at Pennsylvania Power and Light.
Schweitzer estimated that electrical costs will be double the 50 percent Republicans are currently predicting. He said that anyone paying $100 a month for electricity will pay $200 and that small businesses currently paying $1,000 will pay $2,000 come August 2002.
"And there isn't any way you can pass that along to your consumers," Schweitzer said. "That comes directly out of your bottom line."
Schweitzer reminded the Democrats that Montana produces 3,000 megawatts of electricity and only consumes 2,000 megawatts, making Montana an energy exporter. He added that limited transmission capacity on the part of Montana Power curtails the amount of energy that could be physically exported to about 1,000 megawatts.
This led Schweitzer to suggest that the Legislature could easily have called the power company's bluff, telling them, "If you can sell more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity to California, go ahead and do it,"
"They can't physically do it," he said.
Schweitzer told the crowd that several bills that would have helped the situation looked as though they would pass, but were derailed at the last minute by a deal struck between Republican Gov. Judy Martz, the Republican-controlled Legislature, and the utility companies. The bills, among other things, would have imposed excess profits taxes on energy exports, provided what Schweitzer called "a lifeline" of less expensive electricity to industry, and given the Public Service Commission (PSC) the authority to re-regulate the power industry.
All of the bills were scrapped during the final hours of the legislative session except for HB-474. That bill was rewritten to be used as the vehicle for finding last minute solutions to the energy dilemma.
"And during the last 36 hours of the legislative session," Schweitzer said, "there were 34 amendments written into the bill by Montana Power and PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light), and at 5:32 p.m., on Friday evening, the printing press was still printing the amendments."
The next day, Schweitzer said, the Legislature was forced to vote on HB-474 without even having time to read it.
Schweitzer encouraged his fellow Democrats to write letters or contact anyone they knew who could exert pressure on Gov. Judy Martz to veto HB-474 "and send the Legislature back to Helena to finish their job before we get this $180 million tax put on our shoulders."
Schweitzer told the crowd that he doesn't see any of this as bad news for Democrats.
"During the next two cycles," he said, "Democrats are going to win more elections state wide than we have in a generation."
He admonished the Democrats to call into talk radio shows and to write letters to the editor to get the word out.
"Tell the story," Schweitzer told the party faithful. "Tell what deregulation has done and tell Judy Martz to veto HB-474 before we're all out of work."