HELENA – The Republican-led Montana House gave hesitant initial approval Friday to a pro-industry eminent domain bill that supporters of the high-voltage Montana Alberta Tie Line say is needed to rescue the stalled project.
The measure sparked partisan tensions after Democrats, many of whom think the plan could have merits but refused to help the GOP majority pass the contentious bill, even though Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer was pushing the Legislature to fix the underlying problem.
The House endorsed the plan on a 56-44 initial vote after 12 Republicans also refused to support it. It heads toward a third and final vote on Saturday, before going to the Senate.
The MATL project has pit property rights against economic development concerns.
The builders of the line have asked the Legislature and the administration for help after a court ruled late last year that such utility lines don’t have eminent domain authority as most previously believed.
Supporters said the bill was needed to make sure the project doesn’t get shut down after millions of dollars have been invested.
“I understand if something is not done in the next week they are going to send workers home,” said Rep. Ken Peterson, the Billings Republican carrying the bill. “What message will that send to anyone who wants to do business in Montana?”
But opponents, such as ranching groups and other landowners, argue it will give utilities far too much power. Opponents of a different transmission line, NorthWestern Energy’s $1 billion Mountain States Transmission Intertie in southwestern Montana, say the powers granted in the bill could be abused to steamroll landowners who get in the way.
“The people in my district sent me here with a message to fight against that,” said Max Yates, R-Butte. “This bill is going to simplify the process for NorthWestern to bring a line through south Butte at the expense of everyone that owns a home out there.”
Republicans are also trying to push a companion bill that would give landowners more power in eminent-domain negotiations, in an attempt to ease the blow that the pro-development bill levels against a core constituency, the ranching groups. That companion measure is still being worked out in committee.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has supported the MATL project, told lawmakers in his State of the State speech that a fix to the eminent domain issue is needed.
But Democrats locked up against the GOP-led proposed fix.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, of Butte, said Republican leaders have told the Democrats to “pound sand” too many times this session to expect their help with a tough issue.
He said Democratic bills get killed too often, and the minority party’s concerns are routinely ignored — such as on a measure heard earlier Friday to water down the Montana Constitution’s “clean and healthful” pro-environment provision.
“We have been told through these votes that we have little standing and our vote today was meant to ask the Republican caucus to pay attention to our ideas,” Sesso said. “This is a statement we needed to make.”
Republican leaders, no doubt feeling the pressure of rallying votes on a measure that rips through the middle of core private property rights and pro-business concerns, denounced the Democrats for failing to help with a measure their governor seems to want.
“We are extremely disappointed that House Democrats chose to turn a jobs issue into a partisan political football,” House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray said in a statement. “This afternoon, House Democrats unanimously voted no on jobs for Montana. Republicans will continue to pursue legislation that creates the regulatory certainty necessary to provides more opportunities and jobs for Montanans.”
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