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Lawmaker advocates state-owned utility facilities

HELENA - A leading advocate for public ownership of utility operations in Montana may try again to get state government into the energy business.

But Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, said Monday his new proposal differs from a ballot measure he pitched in 2002. That initiative, which got only 32 percent of the vote, would have required the state to buy the power-generation dams owned by PPL Montana if a special commission found such a deal to be in the public interest.

Toole submitted a revised version of that measure to legislative staff for the mandatory legal review Monday.

The new proposal would permit - not require - the state to purchase a broad array of energy facilities, including dams, power lines, natural gas distribution systems, and gas supplies. Unlike the 2002 measure, Toole's revamped initiative would not allow the state to use its power of eminent domain to condemn the property of a reluctant owner.

But Toole said he's not sure he will even circulate petitions to gather the signatures necessary to put this new plan on the November ballot.

He said he wants wait and see what happens with NorthWestern Corp., the parent company of NorthWestern Energy, that is struggling to recover from bankruptcy. NorthWestern Energy supplies electricity to about 300,000 Montanans and gas service to 150,000.

The company filed its reorganization plan March 11. The state's six largest cities have said they may make an offer to buy the company's Montana operations. A consortium of a North Dakota-based utility and electric cooperatives in three states has expressed similar interest.

Toole said he had to start the process of preparing for a petition drive in order to have a chance of collecting the necessary signatures by the June 28 deadline, just in case he decides to pursue the issue as a ballot measure.

He said he wants to wait and see what purchase offers are made to NorthWestern and how the company's creditors respond. Toole also said his proposal may provide a solution for the state if some other less-desirable buyer emerges and is successful, and could encourage the creditors to sell to the cities or the alliance of co-ops.

At the very least, the legal analysis of his plan could provide the basis for a bill to be introduced in the 2005 Legislature, he said.

Toole said he will decide by mid-May whether to try to qualify the proposal for the ballot.


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