March 22, 2011

Power line eminent domain bill tied up in Senate

By MIKE DENNISON, Gazette State Bureau‌, The Billings Gazette, 21 March 2011

HELENA – A bill identified by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and GOP legislative leaders as a key “jobs” bill, to clarify companies’ rights to condemn property on power line and pipeline routes, is locked in a Senate committee, without enough votes to emerge.

Senate Republican leaders said Monday that they don’t have enough votes among their 28-member majority to pass House Bill 198 and that they’ll need some Democratic help.

But Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said it appears that Democrats are playing politics by refusing to provide any votes, and suggested the lock-up is being directed by the governor.

“I think we’re doing our part,” Peterson said. “We’re doing everything we can. I can’t carry the governor’s water for him. He’s going to have to carry his own water. …

“In the end, the governor will decide if he wants this bill or not. … It’s not going to be a bargaining chip. This bill is going to live or die on its own.”

HB198, sponsored by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, passed the House by a wide margin six weeks ago but has since been stalled in the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

HB198 would help Montana-Alberta Tie Limited condemn a small piece of property for its 214-mile power line route in northern Montana, from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. A court decision blocking MATL’s acquisition of the property has delayed construction of the line.

The $215 million line would transport electricity primarily from wind-power projects in north-central Montana and is seen as vital to enabling development of those projects.

In an interview late Monday, Schweitzer said it’s “ridiculous” to suggest that he’s directing Democrats to withhold their support for HB198.

He acknowledged that he favors some sort of legislative fix for the court decision that has prevented MATL from condemning a piece of property on the power line’s route, but wouldn’t say if HB198 is the bill to solve it.

“I think we need a fair and equitable solution for the impasse we have on eminent domain,” Schweitzer said. “We need to be able to build transmission lines so people can have electricity for their farms, for their subdivisions, for their homes. … and landowners need to be treated fairly.”

If Republicans want the bill to pass, they have the power to provide the votes, he said, noting, “It serves no purpose for those within the legislative process to lash out at me, especially those with a super-majority. I don’t have a vote.

“(Sen. Peterson) is the leader of the Republican Senate caucus. He has the votes in his palm.”

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who chairs the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, said there aren’t enough Republican votes to move the bill from the committee or to pass the bill on the Senate floor.

“If it was totally up to Republicans right now, it would not pass,” Olson said. “I don’t see any Democrat votes.”

Republicans hold a 28-22 majority in the Senate and a 7-5 majority on the committee.

Democrats on the panel said Monday that they have concerns about how HB198 would affect private property rights of landowners whose property lies along a pipeline or power line route.

“A lot of us are struggling with what’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings. “We all want economic development. But we’ve got to protect private property rights.”

Scores of landowners in northern and southwestern Montana, where new power lines are proposed, have testified against HB198, saying it does more than just clarify existing law and gives private power line companies too much leeway on condemning property.

Sen. Peterson, however, said Democrats’ concerns about property rights seem a little disingenuous.

Supporters of “green” power development have been backing the MATL line, as has the governor, and now they’re backing away from the bill that helps the line go forward, Peterson said.

“Some of the Republicans think we’re carrying the environmentalists’ water here,” he said. “They (Democrats) should be helping us. This project (MATL) originated at the governor’s request. …

“I think we need to see if we can find a solution. But, as long as (Schweitzer) wants to play this game, I’m fine with taking it right to the end. It will be his call, not mine.”

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