Closing Range

An Old Bait and Switch

Montana’s eco-radicals are in a tizzy, as I-80’s passage was a stunning political masterstroke for them

By Dave Skinner

There’s been some rumbling about Montana House Bill 273, sponsored by Flathead state Rep. Derek Skees (R). His bill would repeal those parts of Montana Code Annotated 75-20-12XX concerning major facility siting of nuclear power plants made law in 1978 when Montana voters approved Initiative 80.

Montana’s eco-radicals are in a tizzy, of course, as I-80’s passage was a stunning political masterstroke for them, just amazingly good political deflection. Today’s howling about Skees trying to “eliminate the public vote” is just as good, frankly. I actually had an otherwise conservative friend call me, expressing his upset that the people’s voice was being silenced.

On topics as consequential as bringing nuclear power (and all its benefits, and consequences) to join our missiles, putting the issue before voters might make sense, if voters are actually well-informed on what they’re really voting for and savvy enough to recognize being baited and switched.

Some history: I-80 passed three weeks before I was old enough to vote. It was pretty much a re-hash of 1976’s tried and failed I-71, in turn a cheap re-hash of a failed California nuke-ban initiative, “an act to ban” all nuclear building that was, and remains, the fever-dream-come-true of every wild-eyed “No Nukes” tort attorney ever.

I-71 went down in 1976 by about 20 points, with 290,000 total votes cast. But just two years later, the barely changed I-80 passed by over 30 points with 278,000 total votes. 

Why? Even if you’re old enough to remember, please don’t give Hanoi Jane Fonda any credit. Our vote came before her China Syndrome movie and the Three Mile Island partial meltdown.

I-71 was called “Montana Legislative Approval for Nuclear Facilities” and voters were asked to be for or against “an act to ban nuclear power in Montana until the conditions specified [are] met.” Now, that’s pretty straightforward, honest packaging – and I-71 failed.

How about in 1978? I actually looked at the Voter Information Pamphlet for 1978. It’s a mess, fully 49 gray pages jammed with blather about no less than SIX constitutional items, TWO legislative referendums, and THREE initiatives. The only breaks in 49 gray pages of mostly-unreadable self-serving blather for and against are the check-box sections. Are you kidding me? It’s election night after work, you’re hungry, there’s a line. The nuke part ALONE begins on page 34 and runs to the top of page 40.

If more than 50 Montanans can say they actually read the whole pamphlet, voted accordingly AND pass a lie-detector test, I’ll quit chewing snoose. That’s a big bet.

But something else changed. Proponents morphed 1976’s “Act to Ban” into 1978’s “Act Empowering Montana Voters” – everyone is for that, right? Me too! 

Even better, the language next to the pamphlet check boxes changed to for/against “giving Montana voters power to approve or reject any proposed major nuclear power facility and establishing nuclear safety and liability standards.” We all trust ourselves to be savvier than our politicians, even if we’re really not, don’t we? Yay for us!

All I can say is, pretty slimy, and effective – brilliant politics, a spot-on read of how Montana voters actually behave in the voting booth. But as law, I-80 is flat-out radical.

In effect, the actual language setting the “standards” that voters codified is so ridiculous, there’s actually no possibility of building any nuclear power facility, ever. I-80’s backers never, ever intended for “the process” to get anywhere near a “public vote” at any time. How can you “eliminate” something that is already impossible? 

I’m sorry but anyone claiming I-80 was ever about actually “empowering” Montanans was, is now, and always will be, a flat-faced liar. As for my fellow citizens who fell for this shameless “public vote” gambit? Shame on you.

So, what now? Now that I know what’s going on, I fully support HB 273’s repeal of I-80, which was never, ever about giving Montana voters any say whether or not we should have nuclear energy. The only thing I’d change: Don’t repeal, but keep the section where “voters in a statewide election called by initiative or referendum” might finally get to vote – hopefully much more wisely.

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