Transfer of Power

Montana Democrats try their hand at repairing deregulation


Democrats from Miles City to Hamilton and many towns in between gathered in Helena Monday night to find a way out of the energy deregulation morass created by Republicans and a “minority of the minority” Democratic Party in 1997.

Bob Ream, chairman of the Montana Democratic Party, laughs when he says the clan gathering “went well, considering it was a bunch of Democrats.” But he says it’s now up to the Democrats, a small minority of whom supported deregulation in 1997, to find a solution to the problem.

Between 40 and 50 of the party faithful, including former senatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Mike McGrath and various legislative leaders, attended the informal meeting in an effort to devise solutions to the deregulation mess, and strategies to put Democrats into the legislative majority.

Two themes emerged from the gathering, says Ream: reregulation and accountability.

Ream and Jim Olsen, a Bitterroot Valley resident who also attended the meeting, say they were dumbfounded at the results of a recent Lee Enterprises poll which found that 71 percent of Montanans disapproved of deregulation, but that only 16 percent blamed the Republicans.

The first order of business, both say, is to spread the word around the state that the Republicans in the Legislature and former Gov. Marc Racicot colluded with corporate interests to deregulate an energy system that had served Montana well and was in no need of tinkering.

Energy deregulation, as expensive as it will be when the rate cap on residents and small businesses is lifted in July 2002, is only part of a bigger picture, Olsen says. The legislative “attack” on education also figures in to the Democratic strategy of “throwing the bums out” in 2002.

But the hot button issue is energy deregulation and the shady deals the Republicans struck with Montana Power in the 1997 and 2001 sessions, Olsen says. That collusion with industry “is a serious example of a corporate-run state government,” he says. “We’re being exploited like a Third World country. This come pretty close to letting corporate lobbyists run our government.”

Olsen and Ream say that the Democrats will work the state to get that message across before the next legislative election. And, they say, the state party aims to take back the “family values” message co-opted to great success by Republicans who, in the last session, worked closely with Montana Power Company and PPL Montana lobbyists to craft a deal that was anything but family-friendly.

“My input was that the price [of electricity] is going up and the pocketbook thing is going to be an issue. We’ve got to tie that to family values. We need a different kind of government that works for the people,” says Olsen.

Count on the Democrats to hit the Republicans hard in the next year or so, says Ream, and to hold Republicans accountable for the deregulation mess they’ve created. But don’t expect to see the Democrats sign on to any citizen-backed initiatives that might emerge to take control of the state’s power generation. “We’d be better off spending our energy strategically, rather than going out and getting signatures,” he says.

Olsen concurs: “There are better things to talk about.”

Like solutions, for one. Though the Democrats agree that assigning blame for deregulation is the party’s number one strategy and will be crucial to the Democrats’ success in the next election, citizens will also be looking to them for answers.

Unfortunately, say both Olsen and Ream, the damage has been done, and there are precious few ways to undo it. “The horse is out of the barn,“ and “The genie’s out of the bottle,“ say Ream and Olsen.

“What a deal,“ Olsen adds. Montana Power “got deregulation and they still get a guaranteed profit. It’s a multinational corporation’s dream.“

Montana Power sold its power generating plants to PPL Montana, and is in the process of selling its transmission lines to NorthWestern, a South Dakota company.

Olsen says Montana Power ratepayers, for now and for years into the future, should gird themselves for higher prices.

The longer-term solution might be taxpayer purchase of Montana Power’s—now PPL Montana’s—power generating plants.

What emerges from discussions with both men is a germ of an idea to take back the power. The ultimate solution, says Olsen, may well be a “slow buy-back” of the power generation, putting Montana’s power back in the hands of Montanans who will decide the rates and where to sell excess power. “But the Republicans won’t go there,” Olsen says. Hence the Democratic strategy to get back into the legislative majority, he says.

Even if state Democrats or angry citizens are able to convince their fellow Montanans to buy back the power plants, the cost to the taxpayers will be steep. “The bottom line is you can’t get them back for free,” says Olsen.

Olsen says the 2001 Legislature considered several bills that would have put the state’s power generating plants into citizen ownership. But those bills died. Though Olsen believes that Sen. Ken Toole (D-Helena), for one, offered some potential solutions to deregulation, they stood no chance with a Republican Legislature. “You’ve got to replace this bunch with people who work for Montana,” he says.

Ream says state Democratic leaders will continue to meet and fine-tune their message. But meanwhile, says Olsen, rates will go up and for now, it appears there’s nothing the Democrats can do about it.

“There are no magic bullets,” Olsen says. “It’s more like bite the bullet.”


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