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A bill seen as key to reviving efforts to “Save Colstrip” was narrowly advanced by House lawmakers Thursday after receiving crucial support from Democrats.

On a 52 to 48 vote, Lawmakers set up House Bill 597 to be worked over in conference committee. The broad-titled-bill is one of a few options for grafting language from SB331, Republican Sen. Tom Richmond’s legislation to save the troubled coal-fired power plant in southeast Montana.

The plan commits NorthWestern Energy customers to an increased share of debt, should NorthWestern increase its ownership in Colstrip. Other Colstrip owners have been making exit plans, and South Dakota-based NorthWestern tells lawmakers there’s a chance it could buy a larger share of the power plant and the transmission lines on the cheap.

Supporters see NorthWestern increasing ownership as a way to keep the power plant running. Opponents warn that NorthWestern customers will be saddled with more Colstrip repair costs, along with more environmental and decommissioning debt, if the deal goes through.

Richmond’s bill died on the House floor Tuesday. But the HB 597 conference committee could insert the language of the Richmond bill into HB597.

Several Democrats, roughly a third of a caucus, that had earlier opposed Richmond’s bill, voted for the bill key to keeping the “save Colstrip” plan alive.

In a meeting before the vote, House Democrats discussed the possibility of keeping the Colstrip plan in play in exchange for Republican help reviving a tax increase to fund the Montana Historical Society’s long-coveted Heritage Center project. The possibility was floated by House Democratic leadership as one of many narratives going around, that included the support from the governor’s office, members of the caucus told The Gazette.

Democrats hope to raise taxes on hotel rooms in order to fund the Heritage Center in Helena, the historic Moss Mansion in Billings, and the Daly Mansion in Hamilton. The bill was tabled earlier in the House Taxation Committee.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office did not respond to a Thursday morning interview request from The Gazette about the apparent Heritage Center deal.

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After Democrats confirmed the pre-vote meeting discussion, the possibility of a leveraging action on HB597 and the Heritage Center became reality.

House Bill 597, sponsored by Rep. Dan Zolnikov, R-Billings, was sent to conference committee on a 54-48 vote. Democrats then managed to blast the Heritage Center bill from committee with Republican help.

House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, confirmed accounts of the meeting, but said that there were no promises made for a vote trade on HB597 and the Heritage Center. Schreiner was among the Democrats who earlier voted to kill Richmond’s Colstrip bill, but voted Thursday to move HB597 to conference committee. Democrats will get to vote for whatever the conference committee produces, he said.

“If that bad stuff was put into that bill, there’s two more opportunities for us to express our frustration and vote against it,” Schreiner said.

Republicans have a 58 percent majority in the House. If the caucus bands together, they can pass the conference bill without a vote from the chamber’s 42 Democrats. HB597 would not have had the votes to be sent to conference committee Thursday without support from Democrats.

The Billings Democrats who threw support behind HB597 were Kathy Kelker, Emma Kerr-Carpenter. Kelker did not respond to an interview request from The Gazette. Kerr-Carpenter’s phone was not taking messages.

There were several Billings Republicans who voted not to send SB597 to conference committee. Reps. Dennis Lenz, Vince Ricci, Sue Vinton and Barry Usher, opposed the move. Lenz, Ricci and Vinton did not respond to interview requests by The Gazette.

It was a good day in a stretch of otherwise rough days for Colstrip and Montana coal. Late on Thursday morning, Bullock’s administration announced that it had approved the 10 square mile expansion of Rosebud Mine after seven months of review. The coal mine’s supporters had said expanding the mine was crucial to keeping the power plant fed into the future. The coal mine and power plant support most of the jobs in Colstrip, a community of 2,300 people.

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