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Capital Eyes: State of Denial

Lege leaders struggle to recognize their problems

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In the popular twelve-step programs used to help people with alcohol, gambling and other problems, the first step is to admit that there is, in fact, a problem. Despite the obvious signs of impending crisis, our leaders have so far refused to take that first step and admit the problems, take responsibility for past mistakes, and move aggressively to correct them. Instead, if recent events are any indicator, they are hoping to spin and scapegoat their way out of the failure to grow (or even maintain) Montana’s economy, stabilize its budget, and regain control of our vital power supplies.

In a classic example, Speaker of the House Dan McGee penned a widely-distributed column this week in which he lauds electrical deregulation as “a quiet success.” The “quiet” part is undeniable—it definitely got quieter around Butte when they shut down the mines. Same for Columbia Falls when they shut down the aluminum plant. And all the other industrial sites that have been shut down because of runaway electricity prices are a lot quieter now. No doubt about it. But when it comes to the “success” of Montana’s deregulation experiment, as the legal beagles are fond of saying, “the assertion is not consistent with the facts.”

Sunday’s front page news story by Mike Dennison, the Capitol Bureau reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, asks the question point blank: “Shocking electricity prices—Is deregulation at fault?” And the lead-in to the article answers the question: “Supporters of utility restructuring argue that neighboring states also are paying high power prices—even though they are still regulated. But that assertion proves questionable.” Questionable indeed. After compiling figures on all the electricity we make and how much we actually use, Dennison says Montana’s power plants and hydroelectric generators produce “at least 60 percent more electricity than is consumed in the state.” This would seem to dismiss the idea that Montana is experiencing some sort of energy shortage that is responsible for driving up electricity costs. No, we are paying more and experiencing the resulting shut down of our industrial sector, primarily because of corporate greed and the failure of the so-called “free market.” Simply put, companies are getting rich selling Montana-made power out-of-state while our own businesses fold and citizens struggle to pay their utility bills.

As mainstream news articles like Dennison’s grow in number, and the victims of dereg continue to mount, it becomes tougher and tougher for Republicans to duck the political bullet that’s headed their way come the next election cycle. That doesn’t mean they won’t try. A favorite tactic, and one that’s being used again this session, is to blame environmental laws for Montana’s economic woes. Yet, considering that Republican majorities have hacked away at water quality, air quality, subdivision, mining reclamation and permitting laws for the last four legislative sessions, one might wonder what’s left to hack? Truth be told, there’s not much. After all, when you control both houses of the legislature by two-thirds majorities, you can pretty much do what you want. This session it’s the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the Major Facility Siting Act that find themselves in the crosshairs, blamed as impediments to economic development and the construction of the new generating facilities some say are necessary to get us out of the dereg disaster.

But will it truly help? No, it will not. We will be poorer as a people because we will have our voice, the citizen’s voice, silenced when it comes to major actions of state government. It won’t bring Montana one inch closer to major markets, it won’t change one penny on the price of world commodity markets, and it won’t stop the power produced with Montana’s resources from being hawked to the highest bidder out-of-state. If slashing environmental regulations was the answer, we would long ago have seen our economy skyrocket. But as everyone knows, we have gone nowhere but down to the bottom in the last 10 years. Like the power supply argument, blaming environmental laws for the condition of the state’s economy is nothing but political spin.

The clock is ticking, and the time for the legislature to tackle the real causes of our problems is quickly passing. We could be moving to take back control of the hydro facilities on our major rivers. Doing so would mean we could ensure clean, renewable power to keep our families whole and our businesses intact. Through condemnation for the greater public good the state and feds flooded farms and ranches, emptied towns, and took public and private lands to build the dams, their reservoirs, and the transmission lines to carry the power they produced. We could use that same tool, pay Pennsylvania Power and Light fair market value, and buy back these vital assets to give our people a secure energy future. We could also invest in developing wind and solar energy to meet Montana’s needs. The Republican majorities, joined by their Democrat counterparts, could do this. We have the resources, but do we have the will?

It won’t be easy or politically expedient to save the State of Montana. The first steps—and perhaps the most difficult for both political parties—will require taking responsibility for a bad decision, ending the blame-the-environmental-laws ruse, and leaving the State of Denial behind.

George Ochenski has lobbied the Montana Legislature since 1985. He is currently working as a lobbyist for a consortium of Montana’s tribes.

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