HELENA – Voices failed from exhaustion and emotion during a two-and-half-hour debate, but the Senate gave its preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill clarifying that utility companies can take private land under Montana’s eminent domain law.
But opponents said landowners aren’t getting a fair compensation under current law and House Bill 198 would do little to level the playing field for property owners. All the measure would do is remove a legal obstacle blocking one power-line project, they added.
The bill comes in response a court battle over the 214-mile Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. power transmission line. Its planned route crosses mostly private land from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Great Falls to serve wind farms in north central Montana.
In a dispute between a landowner and MATL, a district judge in Glacier County ruled that the company does not have the right to use eminent domain. MATL has appealed that decison to the Montana Supreme Court.
During a debate that defied party lines, the bill’s supporters said the Legislature has granted companies the power to take private land since before the Capitol building had its foundation laid. They said the measure would help the state develop wind energy and other natural resources and create jobs.
But those reasons didn’t make the vote an easy one. Lawmakers have been lobbied hard by landowners and utilities over the measure that pitted energy development vs. private property rights.
“There are a lot of people who are going to be affected by this,” Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who voted for the bill. “And I know it, we all know it. This is the toughest vote I’ve ever made. Ever.”
The bill needed the votes of 16 Democrats to win debate-stage approval because most Republicans voted against the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said the bill was a much-needed solution to grow jobs and the economy, and the Democratic votes may indicate the governor’s clout on the Senate floor.
But the charge against HB 198 was led by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman.
“It’s corporate socialism at it’s best,” he said. “It’s centralized planning.”
He even challenged Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, who promised to make sure a study would be conducted on landowner reimbursement and all but begged the body to endorse the measure.
Wittich refuted claims made in “fact sheet” on HB 198 that was distributed with Peterson’s signature.
Then he attacked the notion that passage of the bill would expedite the MATL project, saying that once the bill is signed it will only spark another lawsuit and it will not be executed as planned.
“You think this is self-executing?” he asked fellow senators. “You’re kidding yourself.”
He argued that the bill would be a blow to Montanans’ concept of property rights.
“Now we’re giving a whole new meaning to the song “This land is your land, this land is my land,” he said.
The bill passed its final and confirming vote on Wednesday, 28-22. After the vote, Schweitzer praised the passage of the bill and offered an amendment to terminate the law on Oct. 1, 2013, “to ensure that landowner issues are dealt with by the 2013 Legislature,” according to a statement from his office.
“About 1,575 direct and support construction jobs for MATL and related wind farms were in jeopardy without the passage of HB 198,” the statement said.
“With the passage of HB 198, the construction of MATL can start up again and the RimRock wind farm can start preparing to pour concrete,” Schweitzer said. “I have just talked to the CEOs of Tonbridge (MATL) and NaturEner (RimRock) to let them now that Montana is still open for business as it has always been under my watch.”
Schweitzer said his proposed amendment to terminate the law in 2013 will give the Legislature a chance to address landowner concerns about eminent domain. Bills addressing just compensation and due process died in the Legislature.
“Unfortunately, Montana landowner concerns were not addressed by the Legislature,” Schweitzer said. “While we must be able to produce energy and move it to market, we must also be fair to Montana landowners.
Schweitzer said he will immediately send his amendments to both the House and Senate for their consideration.
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