The divisive issue of “eminent domain” stormed back to prominence at the Legislature Tuesday, as the state Senate revived and then endorsed a once-dead bill that gives a Canadian company the power to condemn property along its route for a power line in north-central Montana.
After more than two hours of often emotional debate, the Senate voted 28-22 to endorse House Bill 198, which clarifies that power-line companies like Montana Alberta Tie Limited (MATL) have condemnation powers in Montana.
MATL has been trying to condemn a piece of private property near Cut Bank along the 215-mile route of its Great Falls-to-Lethbridge, Alberta, power line. But a state District Court decision last December said state law does not give explicit power to companies like MATL to condemn property, and work on the line has been halted since March.
“This company is losing $1 million a (month),” said Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who nearly came to tears in urging fellow senators to support the bill. “Let’s just wait? … I’m not here to wait. Let’s get something done.”
The District Court decision has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
Opponents of HB198 argued vehemently that the bill is a substantial expansion of the authority of power-line companies, has the potential to trample landowner rights and that the courts should be allowed to decide the issue.
They said MATL has made mistakes handling negotiations for property right-of-ways along the power line’s route, and shouldn’t be bailed out by the Legislature.
“I cannot believe that this body thinks … that a corporation can screw up in a negotiation and then ask the Legislature for a do-over,” said Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge. “We’re trying to rig the rules for one player. I’m disappointed that we would even consider it.”
HB198 had been stalled in a Senate committee for more than two months and all but given up for dead, but the Senate voted 26-23 early Tuesday to move the bill to the full Senate for a debate and vote.
The vote to endorse the bill set up a final, binding vote in the Senate, most likely on Wednesday. If the bill clears that hurdle, it goes to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature.
The issue cut across party lines, with Democrats and Republicans speaking passionately both for and against the measure. Sixteen Democrats joined 12 Republicans to vote for the bill.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who carried the bill on the Senate floor, said Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office had been lobbying Democrats to support the measure.
HB198 says any company that has acquired a certificate under the state Major Facility Siting Act to build a power line – as MATL has done – can exercise the power of eminent domain to condemn property.
Eminent domain is the authority to condemn property for a defined “public use,” such as an electric power line, pipeline, railroad or highway.
A Native American family has objected to MATL’s plans to route the line through historic tepee rings, and won the District Court ruling against the company in December.
Advocates of HB198 said nearly $1 billion of investment in the MATL power line and proposed wind farms that want to use the line is at stake, and that the bill merely clarifies an authority that power-line companies believed they already had.
Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, said the bill is that rare issue that has the support of industry, environmentalists and labor.
“Yes, this is a ‘green’ bill; yes, this is an industry bill,” he said. “It’s a bill for a new industry that we need in this country and this state. And yes, this is a jobs bill. It’s for jobs, it’s good for the state, it’s good for the nation, and it’s good for the planet. We ought to vote for it.”
Olson also said the bill doesn’t dramatically change eminent-domain law and that many protections for landowners in the law and the condemnation process will still exist.
Opponents of the bill, however, noted that utility companies had worked to kill other bills before the 2011 Legislature that strengthened landowners’ hand in the negotiating process on what industry would pay for crossing condemned land.
“Condemnation is not an easy process; it’s not very landowner-friendly,” said Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, one of the bill’s most vocal critics. “I don’t think we should end this debate with this type of cram-down legislation.”
Others said the bill simply goes too far in granting industry the right to condemn private property, regardless of the purpose.
“If this is for wind (power), and if wind is so important, does the end justify the means?” asked Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls. “Can we now say, it’s OK to mutilate sacred, historical artifacts of the tribes in the state of Montana? It’s OK to bulldoze wetlands? It’s OK to squash the individual voices of the people of Montana?
“If jobs and industry are so important in this state, that we now say it’s OK to run over landowners. … That’s a part of Montana that I don’t want any part of.”
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