Senate Bill 331 vs Montana ratepayers

Brad Molnar
Thursday, April 25, 2019
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Political Potpourri

When Senate Bill 331 (AKA Save Colstrip) passed second reading (2–1) headlines proclaimed it was because SB 331 allowed NorthWestern Energy to buy a larger share of Colstrip Unit Four and more transmission. The next day SB 331 failed (2–1). Headlines said it was because Medicaid Expansion had passed the Senate. The reason SB 331 failed? It is the stuff political nightmares are made of.

Originally dubbed SB 278 the concept was tabled by its own sponsor, Sen. Tom Richmond (R) Laurel-Huntley, when it became clear the only jobs saved were on the NWE executive board.  Renamed SB 331 the path forward was difficult. Within minutes it died on 3rd reading 20-29, was resurrected 30-19 and passed 27-22 with deserting Republican senators replaced by Butte democrat reinforcements. Those reasoning beyond the nick name “Save Colstrip” realized that without SB331 NWE could buy the increased energy capacity with or without PSC approval.

The bait was buying 150MW of energy for $1. The trap was inheriting $200M in liability even if the $1 was never spent. Basically SB 331 is the legislative version of “Ask and Ye Shall Receive”. The House Energy Committee cleaned up SB 331 reducing the mandated blunt force trauma to rate payers to pay for  environmental remediation at the Colstrip ash ponds, tearing down the complex, and purchasing unneeded transmission lines to only a $100M blunt force trauma. The Public Service Commission was put back in charge of investigating most rate increases. Not much comfort since three of the five commissioners have publicly said they were in favor of the $200M rate increases without any evidence. If these three brave souls will be able to sit on these cases, since they ruled before the case was filed, is a question awaiting an answer.

Being an investigative/forensic reporter I examined the “how come” of two bills. The first was to allow disabled persons to be able to hunt with a crossbow during archery season. I was interested in why the entire Democratic senate caucus opposed the measure so I requested email records using specifically named legislators, search words and dates. I received 100’s of emails from Legislative Services. Using a similar request I asked for emails concerning SB 331. I received confirmation SB 331 had been requested last November by Sen. Ankney with permission for only Sen. Richmond and NWE to have access. I was informed Senate amendments were requested only by NWE. There were no emails found from constituents or between legislators on one of the hottest topics of the session. Zero. What are the odds?

A month ago I asked for the emails of Public Service Commissioners working on a tip they had been intimidated by Republican Senate leadership into supporting SB 331. A phone call from the attorney of the Montana Newspaper Assn. broke the log jam a few days ago. The PSC’s head attorney said he would start the process this week.  Of course that will be after the fate of Ratepayer’s vs SB 331 will be known.

Republican leadership tried to make a deal in which democrats would get 100,000 constituents through Medicaid Expansion if Republican’s could, pretty please, pass a $200M rate increase. Democrats got the 100,000 constituents and will campaign on defeating a Republican $200M rate increase. Brilliant.    

Brad Molnar served in the Montana House and on the Public Service Commission for eight years. He represented Montana ratepayers on transmission reliability and cost allocation projects across a multistate areas.

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