Supporters of a move to repeal an 11th hour legislative energy bill have just a month to collect more than 20,000 signatures required for next year’s ballot.
Citizens are spreading out across the state collecting signatures for Initiative Referendum 117, which they hope to place on the November 2002 ballot.
IR 117 seeks to repeal HB 474 which was approved by the Montana Legislature in the last hours of the 2001 session.
One of the signature gatherers out last week was Lisa Thompson, the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) in the November 2000 legislative race. Thomas is the chief architect of the 1997 senate bill that deregulated the energy industry in Montana. He also supported HB 474, which Democrats in particular want to see repealed.
HB 474 addressed several problems inherent in energy deregulation. The bill extended by five years the transition period for Montana Power Company (MPC) customers to choose a new power supplier. MPC was set to go out of the business of supplying power July 1, 2002. HB 474 extends that transition period to 2007. The bill did not freeze rates, however, meaning that MPC would continue to supply power to customers, who will be subject to fluctuations in the volatile energy market.
Under HB 474 MPC would remain the default energy supplier and would be guaranteed full recovery of its costs to purchase energy, whatever the price. MPC would pass on higher energy prices to consumers.
The bill also establishes a Montana Power Authority which could issue bonds, at taxpayer expense, to build new power generation plants and transmission lines.
It is, says Thompson, a bill that guarantees profits to energy companies without any risk.
“Deregulation is supposed to take government out of industry,” she says. “This (bill) puts [government] back in. So what are they trying to do here? People basically take all the risk with [HB 474], and the industry takes all the profit.”
The “sleight-of-hand” bill, as Thompson calls it, also created a consumer electricity support program ostensibly designed to mitigate energy price increases to ranchers, farmers, ratepayers and small businesses. The Legislature did not, however, provide funding for that program.
A referendum is a measure citizens can use to repeal legislation signed into law. Signature gatherers must collect 20,510 signatures totaling 5 percent of the registered voters in 34 legislative districts by Sept. 21 to qualify for the November 2002 ballot.