HELENA— The Legislature’s last major eminent domain reform bill stalled Monday in a key Senate committee, leaving private transmission line developers’ ability to condemn private property up to the courts.
Lawmakers’ inability to address one of the most controversial issues of the session could stall development of 214-mile international Montana Alberta Tie Line, on which Canadian developer Tonbridge Power Inc. of Toronto has already begun construction.
The Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee voted 8-4 to table House Bill 198 after a motion to pass the bill on to the full Senate failed 6-6.
Supporters of the bill are doubtful that there are enough votes in the 50-member Senate to blast the bill onto the floor, meaning the bill is probably dead unless supporters are able to muster enough votes to force a floor debate.
However, Committee Chairman Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, announced late Monday that the Senate Energy Committee would meet again today.
The only item left on the committee’s agenda as of Monday was HB198.
Eminent domain has been one of the most hotly debated issues of the 2011 Legislature with lawmakers lining up on either on the side of private property rights or energy development and jobs.
Republicans, who control the Senate by a margin of 28-22, have so-far been unable to bring the majority party together on the issue. Democrats have been mostly opposed to the measure, despite the fact that Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, has said he wants a solution to the eminent domain problem.
A separate bill in the House that would have given property owners more power in negotiations with developers died last month.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said he voted against bringing the measure to the floor because the major parties on both sides of the issue – landowner rights advocates and pro-development groups – refused to hammer out a compromise during the legislative process.
“This whole bill has been a really high-stakes game of poker between a couple of adversaries who have been at absolute loggerheads and unwilling to move toward each other,”Essmann said. “If they want to play the game in court I guess that’s where they can play it.”
The bill came after a Glacier County district judge ruled in December that Tonbridge Power Inc. of Toronto did not have the authority to exercise the right ofeminent domainto build the Montana Alberta Tie Line. District Judge Laurie McKinnon agreed with the property owner’s attorney that the company is not a public agent of the state that has been granted express legislative authority to acquire private property.
MATL has appealed that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
The debate over how to deal with the conundrum created by McKinnon’s ruling made for some strange bedfellows this session, with some environmental groups siding with energy companies in support of HB198.
Jim Jensen is the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a group often at odds with energy companies in the policy arena. However MEIC and a handful of other environmental groups sided with NorthWestern Energy – the state’s largest utility – and MATL to support HB198. Jensen said the measure would have boosted development of green energy such as wind power.
Jensen criticized the Democrats on the panel who voted “no” Monday,
“This was the vote: up or down, on renewable energy,” Jensen said. “This is a very good bill, and we need to get it passed one way or the other.”
Democratic Sen. Ron Erickson of Missoula was the only Democrat on the panel to vote in favor of the bill. Erickson said the Legislature has thus far failed to address global climate change. He said the only way Montana will produce more green energy is if transmission line companies have the ability to build utility lines across private property.
“I’m afraid that if HB198 does not pass that we will dampen, at least for a while and perhaps permanently, wind energy out of this state,” Erickson said.
The remaining four Democrats on the panel sided with Republican Sens. Jason Priest, of Red Lodge, and Sen. Jeff Essmann, of Billings in voting against the measure.
Olson said he doesn’t think there are enough votes in the Senate to blast the bill.
But Hertha Lund, the attorney representing more than two-dozen landowners along the proposed MATL route, said she’s not convinced that HB198 is dead.
“It isn’t over until it is over,” Lund said. “I am not sure that HB198 is dead because I hear rumblings of lots of political horse-trading going on.”
Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, voted “no” on Monday but indicated to the Lee Newspapers capitol bureau that he could change his vote today.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Van Dyk told a Lee Newspapers reporter. “It’s certainly a struggle. I wasn’t ready to vote ‘yes’ (Monday). I may change my mind. … I’ve got a feeling this isn’t done yet.”
According to MATL lobbyist Darryl James, construction crews are currently building portions of the line in Alberta but will have to halt soon because of seasonal permitting restrictions. James said the company planned to return to work in Montana this month but the company has been unable to secure private land south of the Marias River.
“Until there is legislation or a Supreme Court decision, we don’t see the impasse being broken,” James said.
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