When Senate Bill 331 passed second reading 2 to 1, headlines said it was because SB 331 allowed NorthWestern Energy to buy a larger share of Colstrip Unit 4 and more transmission. The next day SB 331 failed 2 to 1, and the same headline writers said it was because Medicaid expansion had passed the Senate. The real reason is that SB 331 is the stuff political nightmares are made of.
Originally dubbed SB 278, the concept was tabled by its own sponsor, Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Laurel-Huntley, as understanding grew. Renamed SB 331, the path forward was difficult. Within minutes it died on third reading 20-29, was resurrected 30-19 and passed 27-22 with deserting Republican senators replaced by Butte Democrats. Those reasoning beyond the nickname of “Save Colstrip” realized SB 331 saved zero jobs and nothing in the bill allowed NWE to do anything they could not do with or without PSC approval.
Rather, SB 331 mandated a $200 million rate increase without any investigation. The bait was buying 150 MW of energy for $1. The trap was inheriting $200 million in liability even if the $1 was never spent. Basically, SB 331 is the legislative version of “ask and ye shall receive.”
The House Energy Committee cleaned up SB 331, reducing the mandated blunt-force trauma to ratepayers to pay for environmental remediation at the Colstrip ash ponds, tearing down the complex, and purchasing unneeded transmission lines to only a $100 million blunt-force trauma. The Public Service Commission was put back in charge of investigating most rate increases — not much comfort since three of the five commissioners have publically said they were in favor of the $200 million in rate increases without any evidence. If they will be able to sit on these cases, since they ruled before the cases were filed, is an unanswered question.
In the final version, decommissioning the Colstrip complex would happen without PSC approval. That means ratepayer risk without determining if Colstrip Unit 4 should indeed be decommissioned; all in the name of saving Colstrip. NWE shareholders would be informed but the ratepayers who paid for CU4 would be kept in the dark (pun intended). The Montana Constitution (Article Xlll Section 2) mandates the Montana Consumer Council must represent ratepayers at any hearing of the Montana Public Service Commission. Legislating that the hearing may not take place eliminates that constitutional protection. Why? Constitutional protections are supposed to be enforced except during times of martial law. Did NWE declare martial law?
Senate Bill 331 is a guillotine and political heads will roll. PSC Chairman Brad Johnson is rumored planning, and Sen. Al Olszewski and Senate President Scott Sales have announced, statewide campaign(s). PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci and House Energy Chair Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, assumed to be planning a (re)run for the PSC, are wounded. Yes, votes giving $100 million to $200 million of ratepayer money to NWE just because they asked for it, is a bad campaign plan. Any House or Senate Republicans (Butte Democrats serve forever) in the NWE service area who voted for SB 331 have unexplainable votes to explain.
The real “winners” are Republican leadership which tried to make a deal in which Democrats would get 100,000 constituents through Medicaid expansion if Republican’s could, pretty please, pass a $200 million rate increase. Turns out Democrats got the 100,000 constituents and will campaign on defeating a Republican $200 million rate increase. Par for the course.