HELENA — A Republican-backed plan to rewrite the state's main environmental law was praised Wednesday by supporters as a job-creator that would boost industry projects, while critics bashed the proposal as do-nothing philosophical grandstanding.
Republicans running the Legislature have made Montana Environmental Policy Act reform a cornerstone of their favored measures this session to spur job growth, particularly in the extractive natural resource industries. Their leading plan, which has taken weeks to craft, was the focus of a committee hearing late Wednesday.
The Republicans argue that MEPA has become a hurdle to development of projects in the state.
"We have to bring balance and moderation back to the MEPA process," said Sen. Chas Vincent, the Libby Republican carrying Senate Bill 317. "I think for the most part we will be able to get there."
The GOP said that long delays under the MEPA permitting process, and the possibility of ending up fighting with environmentalists over regulatory decisions, has a chilling effect on natural resource development.
"What we need to promote for these developers is a legal and regulatory structure that allows them to choose Montana over our neighboring states to do business in This bill is a large step in that direction," Vincent said.
It was backed by coal, energy, mining and other companies.
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Environmentalists counter that several Republican led efforts over the years to gut MEPA have left nothing but a procedural shell that doesn't stop development but remains important because it allows concerned neighbors to know about contentious projects like gravel pits.
The Montana Environmental Information Center said Vincent's rewrite of the bill, aided by industry lawyers, turns the MEPA law into an unrecognizable attempt to state the law is meant to assist with the "moral and material well-being" of Montanans and to facilitate natural resource development.
Anne Hedges, a lobbyist for the MEIC, said the environmental law is rarely used by her group or others like it. She said most of the high-profile lawsuits over development projects take place in federal court based on different environmental laws.
Hedges said MEPA is primarily now an important tool to give neighbors a chance to comment on proposed projects that could hurt their property values. She said big changes made to MEPA the last time Republicans held clear-cut control of the Legislature 10 years ago never resulted in the development jobs they promised.
Republicans tout their MEPA changes as a way to improve the economy. Other plans aim to reduce the cost of workers' compensation insurance and reduce business taxes.
There is another bill still alive in the Senate to change MEPA that is carried by a Butte Democrat, which tries to do the same thing but does so a bit differently. Republicans say either could be the vehicle in the end to get the changes they seek.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not said how he will respond to the bills. But in the past he has said there is nothing wrong with Montana's environmental laws, and said he has been able to attract coal and gas and other companies to the state under the current system.