Watching the struggles of Montana’s politicians as bankrupt NorthWestern Energy grants its executives huge bonuses is pitiful. The Public Service Commission’s Republican and Democrat members are unanimously screaming for help because they know Montana’s consumers are going to get hosed by the Delaware Bankruptcy Court. But for some reason, the Turtle Queen and her Repub Dereg Rangers can’t hear them. Let’s see now, this makes how many corporations that have had their way with Montana and then walked away?
Sticking her tiny little turtle head out of her thick ideological shell, Gov. Martz timorously objected to NorthWestern’s announcement that the large bonuses were necessary to maintain critical, high-level personnel. Martz, of course, didn’t point out that these were the same executives who led the company into bankruptcy, but she did suggest that maybe consumers should take priority over the company’s executives.
The corporate chieftains looked askance at the comment, as if they couldn’t believe their nice little lapdog had suddenly farted while sleeping in their lap. But one little poot doesn’t make you throw the dog against the wall, and after some corporate blather about the vast value of these executives, things quieted right down and there was no more yap from the lap.
I really do hate to say it, but it looks like Montanans are going to get hosed again in this latest in a long line of corporate hosings. But here, let me refresh your memory.
In the beginning, there was The Company—and The Company was Anaconda, and The Company owned and ran the whole damn state out of Butte. The newspapers, legislature, lands, water, and air belonged to and were abused by The Company.
But then, in 1980 to be exact, The Company shut down the Anaconda Smelter on the same day their local Boss told his workers they would never shut it down. In an instant, the fate of thousands of Montanans was cast to the winds. And oh, what winds they were.
The total pollution of the lands and air and water by The Company over its 100-year rape of Montana was and continues to be almost unimaginable in scope. Hundreds of miles of streams poisoned and destroyed. Earth so toxic, nothing will grow in it. A mile-wide pit of poisoned water where snow geese land, but never take off again.
The Company, however, is gone. ARCO, its successor in interest, also acquired its liability for pollution. While the battle goes on to force accountability, it should be remembered that Martz, after all, got her land from the company that is on the other side of this battle.
Then there was Pegasus Mining, the Canadian gold corporation that was so important Montana’s water quality laws had to be lowered to accommodate its needs. In one short legislative session, we suddenly went from the best water quality protection laws in the nation, to some of the worst. Now, you can pollute the groundwater under your home or business right up to the limits of your property line—which is very useful if you happen to run an open pit, heap-leach cyanide mine. All of them leak, you see, and eventually, they all pollute the groundwater. Pegasus Mining was the driving force in the Capitol to convince lawmakers to make those deleterious changes.
But then Pegasus went bankrupt. Not, however, before dishing out enormous bonuses to their top executives—instead of paying their Montana property taxes. Pegasus is gone, but Montanans are left with the leaky mines and the terrible water quality laws.
Then came utility deregulation and the infamous tumble of Montana Power from its turn as “The Company” running the state. MPC basically told the 1997 Legislature what to do—and they did it. After all, MPC, as the new Company, fully employed the long-standing traditions of wine and dine and lobby to the tune of $130,000 in one four-month stretch. Considering MPC knew every loophole in the lobbyist reporting laws, the real figure was probably two or three times that amount—if not more. And since there are only 150 legislators in the Montana Legislature, they spent about $1,000 per legislator to stuff dereg through in the final weeks of the session.
Then MPC was suddenly gone, too. Of course its executive officers were granted enormous bonuses for their excellent performance in the Legislature. But its assets, the dams and power plants paid for by lock, stock, and barrel by Montana consumers, were sold off for a billion bucks to a Pennsylvania megacorporation, PPL, which now owns the sources of power Montanans must rely on. And guess what? PPL’s CEO flat out told Montanans they are much more interested in selling our cheap-to-produce Montana hydropower at whatever the market will bear, than in holding down rates for we few poor Montanans.
Touch America came into being with the money reaped (raped) from Montana’s power production facilities. The telecom flourished briefly with the sudden infusion of cash, and executives lived high on the hog, flying across the nation in their corporate jets. We granted the company virtually unlimited access to bury its high-tech fiber optic cables in our public right-of-ways across the state.
But then Touch America went bankrupt, too. Not, I might add, until they also paid their executives huge, multi-million dollar bonuses. Meanwhile those who held MPC stock, transformed into Touch America stock, transformed into corporate bonuses, watched their retirement investments fall from $65 a share to fractions of a cent.
W.R. Grace, Pegasus, MPC, Touch America, a pile of polluted mine sites, and now NorthWestern Energy’s executive “bone-us” scheme which Montanans will pay for with higher energy bills. Will we ever learn? Will we ever have politicians who fight for the people instead of the corporate scoundrels? Will we ever say “Enough is enough” and take back control of our state?
As Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu all over again”—and that’s a crying shame for Montana.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.