HELENA — A group of landowners and others have organized to gather signatures to block a controversial new eminent domain bill from taking effect and putting it on the 2012 ballot as a referendum.
Calling itself Concerned Citizens Montana, the group is launching what it calls the Montana property rights petition drive for a proposed referendum on House Bill 198, by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. Gov. Brian Schweitzer let the bill become law without his signature earlier this month, contending that it didn’t adequately address landowners’ concerns.
The group expects to file the papers needed to launch a referendum campaign later this week. Several state agencies will review the petition documents before backers can begin gathering signatures.
HB198 sought to change state law to clarify that the Montana Alberta Tie Limited (MATL) has the power to condemn property to complete its 215-mile power line. This process, which includes compensation to landowners, is known as eminent domain.
“I think the bill is wrong, and I think the way it was handled during this legislative session was wrong,” said Marie Garrison, the group’s spokeswoman “I think private property rights are really important. I think it was a hastily made decision by the Legislature.”
Her husband, Tim, is a fourth-generation rancher in the Divide area in Silver Bow County.
“We love this life, and we need to protect it,” she said.
MATL has been trying to condemn a piece of private property near Cut Bank along the route of its power line that runs from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta. However, a state district judge ruled in December that state law doesn’t explicitly empower companies such as MATL to condemn property.
Work on the project has been halted since March, and the decision is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.
The Garrisons are particularly concerned about eminent domain concerning the Mountain States Intertie (MSTI) project, slated to cross six miles of their ranch. It is a NorthWestern Energy transmission line from Townsend to Midpoint, Idaho, totaling 430 miles.
“This issue isn’t about MSTI, and it isn’t about MATL,” Garrison said of the referendum. “It’s about a fundamental right. The Legislature didn’t listen to their constituents.”
She said the referendum effort enjoys great grass-roots appeal, the support of the agricultural community and a bipartisan group of legislators from all parts of the state.
In response, John Fitzpatrick, governmental affairs director of NorthWestern Energy, said he is disappointed by the effort.
“Throughout the legislative effort, they misrepresented the effects of HB198, and it’s apparent they’re going forward with the same misrepresentation,” he said. “They can count on the fact that NorthWestern will vigorously respond to this effort.”
Fitzpatrick said the referendum is not about property rights.
“It’s the handiwork of groups fighting transmission line and renewable resource development in Montana,” he said. “If successful, it will have an adverse effect on electricity customers throughout Montana, depriving them of essential utility services.”
However, Public Service Commissioner John Vincent, D-Gallatin Gateway, who supports the referendum drive, called it “fundamentally about fairness.”
“It’s fundamentally about creating a level playing field for landowners,” he said. “Under existing Montana law and HB198, which is now existing law, a transmission utility holds all the cards.”
One of HB198’s major supporters, Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said he understands landowners’ frustration but that there was a lot of misinformation about the bill.
“We didn’t do anything to change existing eminent domain law,” Olson said. “No one can come in and take your property without just compensation.”
Olson said he’s confident that interim legislative committees will take up areas of landowners’ concerns and compensation.
To place a referendum on the state ballot requires the signatures of 5 percent of the registered voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts, and 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in November 2008, or 24,337 signatures.
To suspend a law passed by the Legislature, as this group wants, backers need the signatures of 15 percent of the voters in 51 House districts. This would vary from 31,238 to 43,247 signatures, depending on which House districts they choose.
If the group succeeds in suspending the law, it would stop it from taking force until the vote on the referendum takes place in November 2012.