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Panel tables governor's 'green' energy plan

A Senate panel controlled by Democrats voted Saturday to shelve Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal offering tax breaks to “clean and green” energy development in Montana.

The Senate Taxation Committee voted 7-2 to table Senate Bill 562, advertised by the Schweitzer administration as its signature proposal this session on energy development.

It wasn’t clear Saturday whether or how the bill might be revived before a procedural deadline early next week.

Evan Barrett, the governor’s chief economic development officer, said late Saturday that there is broad public support for the idea and that he hopes the bill can be revived and moved through the Legislature.
“The bill is on the table; it is not dead,” he said. “It’s not an easy path right now, but we think everyone will be able to work their way through it.

“We expect to carry forth the efforts to make that bill happen. That bill will trigger billions of dollars of investment in Montana.”

SB562, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, would cut property taxes for power lines, power plants and other equipment used to produce and transport “green energy,” such as wind power.

At a hearing on the bill Wednesday, the developer of a $140 million power line in north-central Montana said the project could not go forward without the tax breaks in the bill.

SB562 also contains consumer-oriented tax breaks, such as waiving two years’ worth of car registration fees for new vehicles that get at least 35 miles per gallon.

While the Schweitzer administration has said the bill is a priority, it wasn’t introduced until last Monday, three months into the four-months-long 2007 Legislature.

Laslovich and industry supporters also said at Wednesday’s hearing that the bill needed extensive amendments, and that those amendments would be presented to the Senate Taxation Committee soon.

Those amendments played a role in the bill’s tabling Saturday.

Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, said she tried to attach the lengthy list of amendments to the bill in committee Saturday, but that Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, voted against them, along with the panel’s five Republicans.

Republicans on the panel also had some of their own amendments they hoped to attach to the bill, Gillan said, but she was unsure how those amendments might affect the bill or Democratic support.

She said she then decided to move to “table” the bill, rather than allow Republicans to rewrite the bill. Two of the panel’s six Democrats weren’t in the room at the time and hadn’t left “proxy” votes, she said.

“The (original) amendments were the crux of the bill,” Gillan said. “It just seemed to me, why continue the discussion since there clearly was not sufficient support for the governor’s bill?”

If the bill doesn’t win approval from the full Senate by Tuesday, the measure cannot advance to the House unless two-thirds of the Republican-controlled House votes to accept it.

The Senate Taxation Committee could vote Monday to revive SB562, but it’s not clear whether there would be enough time to move the measure to the Senate floor and have the required two successive votes by Tuesday.

Also Saturday, the Senate tax panel did approve SB567, a Schweitzer administration proposal to pay for local impacts of large-scale energy development.

Gillan, the sponsor of SB567, said it may be merged with a pair of House bills on similar subjects.

By Mike Dennison
Gazette State Bureau


1 April 2007