Strange things have happened in the last days of Montana's biennial legislative session. Bills that were dead come back to life. Odd coalitions form. Capitol deal making helps wrap up legislative business, but not necessarily in a way that is good for the people of Montana.
As lawmakers left Helena Thursday for a well deserved Easter break, word was that the fate of a bill to support state museums and tourism promotion is tied to a utility regulation bill that failed to pass the House Thursday.
- Senate Bill 338, sponsored by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, proposes to increase the state lodging tax by 1 percentage point and use the increased revenue for museums and tourism promotion. It would fund the long-planned expansion and remodeling of the Montana Historical Society museum across the street from the Capitol with the society being required to raise $10 million of its project cost from private donors. It also would direct a $400,000 grant to the Moss Mansion in Billings. Both the state museum and the Moss suffer from leaky roofs. The state museum space is woefully inadequate for exhibiting and safely storing Montana artwork, artifacts and documents, which it must preserve under state law. SB338 passed the Senate and received preliminary approval 56-44 in the House Thursday before being re-referred by House leadership to Appropriations Committee.
- House Bill 597, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, would set up hearing examiners for some Public Service Commission matters. It received overwhelming support on its first trip through the House and wasn't substantially changed in the Senate, so it would be expected to pass easily with Senate amendments.
But on Thursday, Democratic leadership told caucus members that getting the museum bill passed depended on rejecting Zolnikov's bill so GOP leadership can send it to a conference committee where it would be amended with language from Senate Bill 331, a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings. Richmond's bill would allow NorthWestern Energy to pass some Colstrip power plant and transmission line costs to Montana ratepayers without Public Service Commission oversight required in present law. On a 52-48 vote, several Democrats sided with Republicans to keep Zolnikov's bill from passing, while some Republicans voted to pass the bill. Now House leadership has the option of creating a conference committee.
There are compelling reasons to vote in favor of the 1 percentage point increase in lodging tax to keep up our "Smithsonian of the West" in Helena and our amazing local museums: Out-of-state visitors will shoulder about 40% of the tax increase, and this generation should preserve the Montana heritage that our ancestors saved for us.
As written, HB597 is a good bill, but 10 past and present Public Service Commissioners have expressed "grave concerns" about SB331. The PSC's own expert analysts recommended opposing it. The Montana Consumer Counsel, along with AARP Montana raised concerns about saddling Montana customers with risk (costs) that should be borne by NorthWestern shareholders.
We call on lawmakers to demand public debate and full public information before voting on any bills. The tactic of sending a bill to a last-minute conference committee for major changes violates the Montana Constitution, which guarantees the public's right to effective participation in government.
We are particularly concerned about hasty decisions involving complex issues of utility rates and regulation. The legislative process should include time for experts — from industry and consumer perspectives — to analyze policy changes and to share that information with the public and lawmakers.
Corporate welfare in exchange for museum grants? We call on lawmakers from both parties to reject such false choices. We call on House members to vote for final approval of SB338, the museum and tourism bill.
We call on House and Senate members to carefully examine any new amendments to HB597 and reject those that shift costs from utility shareholders to Montana customers.
Our citizen lawmakers have put in long days and weeks. They surely are anxious to finish this session and return home. We implore them to take the time to make the best decisions for their constituents right up to and including the very last vote.