Montana Viewpoint

April 22, 2001

The 2001 Legislature is over, and not a minute too soon. Things that worked perfectly well were “fixed,” and problems that were crucial to Montana´s citizens were, at best, patched up. “Fixed” was a system of local collections and distribution of taxes and fees that worked perfectly well; it will now be taken over by the state. Left undone was the adequate and proper funding of education, promotion and development of Montana´s economy, and the enormous problem of holding high electrical power prices in check.

House Bill 124 is the bill that “fixed” the distribution of monies at the county level in the favor of centralized control by the state. It was known as the “Big Bill” because it was, indeed, big…249 pages. Now, court and motor vehicle fees will be sent directly to the state for redistribution to the counties. The state will assume District Court costs and welfare expenditures, as well as reimburse the counties for tax revenue that previous Legislatures had taken away from them. I see it as the beginning of the end for local control, and practically railed against it, to little avail. More on this in future articles.

If you believe that education is critical to the economic success of a society and the individual, you should be disappointed by the way it was handled by the Legislature. Practically everyone who ran for election claimed that this was just about their number one priority, but most of them seemed to care less about it once they got elected. The University system was practically stiffed, while elementary education got far less than former Governor Racicot had recommended, but far more than Governor Martz had called for. I suppose that’s compromise, but is it right?

Economic development was served, or not, by putting a new bureaucracy in place in the Governor´s office to promote Montana. The salaries of only five people will cost Montana taxpayers $535,078 a year. Economic development was also definitely not served by failing to solve the electricity crisis.

In a deal hailed by some legislative leaders as “the best we could do,” and by industry as “a good deal,” Montana Power customers will see their power bills increase by a minimum of 50% beginning July 1, 2002. Large industries like Smurfit Stone will be able to have about 15% of their power needs met at about a 20% increase. They will have to fish the market, where prices have been as high as 4000% above 1999 costs, for the remaining 85%.

The deal was struck between the Montana Power Company (MPC) and the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company (PPL) on the next to last day of the legislative session. In exchange for the “deal” the legislature had to drop all “punitive legislation” such as excess profits taxes or giving the Public Service Commission more authority to “re-regulate” PPL. The deal was supported by most Republicans, and opposed by almost all Democrats.

PPL will continue to make handsome profits on sales to MPC of about 80%, a considerable “sacrifice” when you consider they are now making as high as 300% profit over their cost of production. MPC will not lose any money either.

Well, that’s my bleak synopsis. Future articles will shed further light on why I’ve reached my opinions. Thanks to all who contacted me during the session. I’m at home in Trout Creek, now, and happy to be here, you can bet! If you want to call me, our number at the ranch is 827-3671.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620