HELENA – A bill ensuring power line builders and others get eminent domain authority has cleared a key hurdle after Democrats attached a guarantee that environmental laws won’t be repealed this session.
Utilities say they need the measure after a recent court decision ruling that the high-voltage Montana Alberta Tie Line planned by a Canadian developer does not have the authority to condemn private property for the project. Backers of the bill say the big project could go under without intervention from the Legislature.
The legislation is also backed by the likes of NorthWestern Energy — and opposed by landowners and powerful agriculture interests like the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
The plan drew the support of Democrats after a poison pill was added to the measure saying it would be voided if the Legislature repeals the Montana Environmental Protection Act or the Major Facility Siting Act. Republicans on the panel agreed to the move, saying the GOP majority does not plan to repeal those laws and instead will be modifying them.
Two Republicans, both freshman elected with strong tea party affiliations, voted against the bill. One of them, Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, said Republicans had been meeting at length in an attempt to figure out how to approach the bill.
The measure divides ranching and business interests often aligned with the GOP.
Skees pointed out the bill pits private property rights against support for jobs.
“This is a vital right we have, the right of private property,” Skees said.
The measure was opposed by landowners fighting against MATL and NorthWestern Energy’s $1 billion Mountain States Transmission Intertie in southwestern Montana.
The utilities say the bill only clarifies the way they have been doing business for years. They argued everyone in Montana assumed they had eminent domain authority until a Montana judge ruled last month that the MATL line does not.
House Bill 198 returns that authority to them.
“It has already been law in Montana for 100 years,” said Rep. Ken Peterson, the Billings Republican carrying the bill.
Landowners are seeking their own bill this session that would tilt much of the eminent domain process in their favor. House Bill 240 would carry ramifications for all uses of eminent domain — including the state building of roads — and was opposed by industry interests who argued it would let just one or two landowners permanently derail a project or extort enormous sums.
The Stockgrowers Association said improvements in the process will be needed if there is any hope of allying their concerns with the utility-backed bill. Executive Director Errol Rice predicted the issue will remain a hot topic as the bills move through the Legislature.
“I still think we have a lot of work to do when it comes to landowner protections,” Rice said.
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