HELENA — In his State of the State address Wednesday night, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said one of the Legislature's “most important acts” this session may be fixing the laws of eminent domain that affect construction of power lines and pipelines in Montana.
While Schweitzer hasn't endorsed a specific proposal, he said Thursday that he congratulated House Republicans for moving House Bill 198 out of committee Wednesday.
HB198, sponsored by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, says private developers with a state-approved power line or pipeline route can use eminent domain to condemn and purchase land along that route.
The bill, supported by utilities and power line developers, is in response to a state District Court decision last year that blocked a condemnation proceeding by the Montana-Alberta Tie (MATL) power line in north-central Montana.
“To do nothing is not acceptable,” Schweitzer said Thursday. “They've got to strike a balance that protects landowners' rights but still allows us to keep building Montana.”
Schweitzer said the court order puts projects in jeopardy and upsets eminent-domain law that developers had thought for years was settled.
In his Wednesday night speech, Schweitzer told lawmakers that “Montana expects you to fix the eminent-domain laws,” and that doing it correctly will “create thousands of jobs in Montana,” while getting it wrong means “there will be pink slips sent to thousands of workers in Montana.”
Many landowners testified against HB198 earlier this month, saying it gives developers too much leeway to condemn private property.
John Fitzpatrick, director of government relations for NorthWestern Energy, said his company has rarely used eminent domain to condemn property but that building power lines and pipelines would be almost impossible without its authority.
“We live in an interdependent society,” he said. “This is part of what goes on in living in a modern, industrial society. ... Collectively, we're all better off.”
The House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee approved HB198 on Wednesday evening, sending it to the House floor. However, House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said Thursday that it won't be on the floor until next week.
Milburn said he would like to see what happens to another eminent-domain bill, House Bill 240, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend.
HB240 changes some procedures in the condemnation process, giving landowners a stronger hand in negotiations with the developer.
“We're interested in making sure the landowners have due process (of law) and just compensation,” Flynn said Thursday.
Flynn said he'll propose some amendments to HB240 next week, in the House Judiciary Committee.
While HB198 and HB240 both deal with eminent domain, their respective sponsors said the bills affect different aspects of the law.
HB198 doesn't change any eminent-domain procedures but merely clarifies when its powers can be used, Peterson said.
Flynn said his bill affects the process of negotiation between the landowner and the developer who may want to condemn and purchase an easement over the landowner's property.