If Sen. Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) thinks he rid himself of his nemesis when he defeated Democratic challenger Lisa Thompson at the polls last November, he’ll have to think again.
Last Sunday, Thompson, who campaigned vigorously against Thomas on the electricity deregulation issue—a bill sponsored by Thomas in 1997—began a 115-mile walk from Missoula to Helena to bring attention to the economic despair wrought by Thomas’s dereg bill.
The six-day hike will end on Saturday, April 7, at the state capitol where Thompson plans to rally with as many as 2,000 deregulation foes from around the state. “All we can do is communicate with [the Legislature] and this is the best way I know how,” she says.
Along the way, Thompson will speak to anyone who will listen about utility deregulation, the industrial plant closures that it caused, the employee lay-offs that resulted, and the potential for more financial chaos after July 2002, when the current electricity rate freeze is lifted and homeowners and small businesses begin to fend for themselves in the open power market.
Electricity deregulation, says Thompson, has been a catastrophe for Montana’s fragile economy. And the current Legislature is worsening the situation by coming up with half-baked solutions.
“You don’t have a chance of solving a problem if you won’t admit there is a problem,” she says. The energy problem in Montana “is a deregulation problem, otherwise our economy would be humming along right now, but it’s not, it’s going down the tubes.”
Thompson has worked for weeks lining up other opponents of deregulation, including Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls), Kim Gillan (D-Billings), Dave Gallik, (D-Helena), former Helena legislator David Ewer, and Sen. Ken Toole (D-Helena), all of whom will speak at the rally. She’s tried to get Thomas and Gov. Judy Martz to speak, but neither has returned her calls.
Thompson herself supports Toole’s proposal to create a state power authority, allowing the state to purchase and sell electricity to Montanans, and to buy and build power generation plants. Toole proposes to fund the authority through issuance of coal tax severance bonds.
“I think we have to take control of our destiny or we’ll be over a barrel for years to come,” says Thompson. “Obviously, our economy has to be kept going, or it’s not going to work for any of us.”
Toole’s proposal is in trouble, however. Last week, the state power authority bill was tabled in committee, and the funding bill failed on a vote of 28-20. Ravalli County’s two senators, Thomas and Dale Berry (R-Hamilton), voted with the majority.