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In the past few days, Gov. Judy Martz, Sen. Fred Thomas and Rep. Paul Sliter have jointly issued political attacks against a proposal by Rep. Chris Harris of Bozeman and me that would allow citizens to vote on whether or not their energy rates should go up a minimum of 50 percent on July 1, 2002.

In the waning hours of the 2001 Legislature, Republican leadership, Gov. Martz, PPL (formerly known as Pennsylvania Power and Light) and Montana Power Co. cut a last-minute energy deal, known as HB474, with no public input and little legislative participation.

LEE

Challenging power dealIt is the strong opinion of Chris, me, and many others that the deal only benefited the utility companies and took Montana residents and businesses to the cleaners. Chris and I are in state court right now asking to protect the rights of Montanans to approve or disapprove the deal by referendum – to let the citizens vote on HB474. The governor and other Republican leaders say that should never be permitted as it may upset the power companies and their investors.

There are two very different sides to this question. On one side are people like me, a single working mother from Livingston. We understand what a power bill increase of at least 50 percent will do to Montana farmers, ranchers, small businesses and families. On the other side are special interests, many from out of state, that have a financial stake to protect and have invested a lot of money in electing people who will protect those interests. They do not have to worry about their monthly utility bills, but they sure are worried about the citizens in Montana having a vote on whether the recent deal, memorialized in HB474, is fair or not.

I trust people will vote wisely.

President Teddy Roosevelt talked about trusting the people when he said, “I believe in the initiative and referendum process … (it) should be used not to destroy representative government but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative.”

Democracy cannot be bartered away. We have sacred documents, which are the foundation of our democratic society, the U.S. Constitution and the Montanan State Constitution – neither of which has the phrase, “all rights are negotiable, depending on price, issue or deal struck.”

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For me, that’s a part of what is at stake in the people’s right to vote on HB474. Our state constitution says all government is derived from the people. If either Chris or I were to “barter away” the people's fundamental right to vote on public policy, then we would be walking away from that basic principle. To this day, it’s unclear why three top Republicans in this state, Governor Martz, Senator Thomas and Representative Sliter are so convinced that allowing Montanans to participate in this important policy decision is something to be afraid of. Just the opposite is true. These types of policies and deals cannot work without the people’s support.

Faith in referendumThere was a time in our state’s history when policy was dictated by a few corporations. It appears that time may be returning. Chris and I believe that the days of the backroom, 11th-hour deals made between elected officials and the corporate giants who put them in office should remain a thing of our past. We must offer HB474 for full public scrutiny and public debate.

If I or anyone else is publicly attacked for trying to preserve those rights, for trying to assure public participation in our most important decisions, then so be it. Many others have paid a much higher price for these democratic principles. It is an honor for me to try to make a small contribution in their wake.

Michelle Lee is a Democrat from Livingston.

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