Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Friday that he plans to sign a bill granting clear eminent domain authority to developers of transmission lines such as the Montana Alberta Tie Line between Great Falls and Lethbridge.
Schweitzer criticized House Bill 198, saying it was written by energy companies with too little consideration of landowners impacted by eminent domain. The Legislature, he said, should revisit the issue in the future.
But not signing the bill into law could cost the state 1,575 jobs related to the MATL project, which he said he couldn’t support.
“It’s high stakes poker, and the stakes are too high to veto the bill,” Schweitzer said in a meeting with the Tribune’s editorial board Friday.
Schweitzer noted one of the three wind farm developers with shipping capacity on MATL is planning to construct one of the largest wind farms in the Pacific Northwest.
HB198 – one of approximately 100 bills sitting on the governor’s desk waiting for his signature or veto – was one of the most hotly debated bills of the 2011 legislative session, with landowners fighting it and support coming form NorthWestern Energy and MATL developer Tonbridge Power Inc. of Toronto.
MATL, which will connect the electrical grids of Canada and the United States at Great Falls and Lethbridge, was delayed in December, when a judge said Tonbridge didn’t have eminent domain power under state law. The decision prompted a flurry of pro-landowner and pro-development bills at the Legislature.
Schweitzer said checks and balances, or “speed bumps,” that protect landowners in the eminent domain process should have been incorporated into HB198.
One bill Schweitzer said he supported called for developers to pay landowners a royalty fee per pole but it failed.
The governor praised the efforts of Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, who worked to pass pro-landowner legislation. In the end, Flynn was forced to kill his own bill rather than have it be watered down by supporters of HB198, Schweitzer said.
HB198 clarifies who can use eminent domain for a public use, including developers who receive construction certificates under the state Major Facilities Citing Act.
“It’s not just about the big transmission lines,” Schweitzer said.
If companies don’t have eminent domain power, routine electrical lines to new housing subdivisions or oil wells could be blocked by a neighbor who objects, he said.
Schweitzer wanted to amend HB198 and add a sunset, or expiration date, so it would expire in 2013, requiring the Legislature to revisit the issue. However, the bill was not delivered to his desk before the Legislature adjourned. If bills are not delivered to the governor before lawmakers leave the Capitol, the governor can sign, veto or let them become law without his signature, but he cannot issue a so-called amendatory veto suggesting a specific change be made.
Regarding other legislation:
The governor vetoed House Bill 59, which would have allowed energy generated from expansions at hydroelectric dams to be classified as renewable energy under the 2005 Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Energy Act.
The bill was backed by PPL Montana, which began an expansion of Rainbow Dam in 2009. The governor said the purpose of the state’s renewable energy law is to promote new jobs. PPL, the governor said, was trying to change the law to take advantage of the credits retroactively, after it had decided to make the upgrade.
“Some people were blowing smoke up the south end of a north-facing Great Falls citizen,” the governor said.
The governor first issued an amendatory veto that would have allowed new hydro expansion projects to qualify, but excluded the Rainbow project. The amendatory veto was defeated in the Legislature, leading to the full veto.
Schweitzer continues to consider a bill that would fund 36 water and sewer projects, totaling $13.7 million. Schweitzer previously questioned some of the expenditures, including $750,000 for the town of Brady. On Friday, Schweitzer said the $750,000 “works out to about $6,000 a head.” But he added that he is studying each proposed project closely, not just the one in Brady. “I need to look at the complete picture, and I’ll be doing that over the next few days.”
Schweitzer said he plans to sign a bill overhauling the state’s medical marijuana law that aims to rein in a boom in users and pot businesses, even though he said it is too restrictive.
Schweitzer said he is concerned some legitimate patients might not be able find the product they need under the changes. And new restrictions, he added, might end up making regulation more difficult.
But “the current situation is worse than the over restrictive nature of this bill,” he said.
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