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Republican says radio ads tantamount to accusation of bribery

HELENA - The Montana Democratic Party has been sponsoring advertisements on five Flathead County radio stations this week blasting Republicans for their stand on energy issues.

The ad campaign, costing a total of $1,600, started Monday and concludes Friday and runs during "drive times" in the morning and evening when people drive to and from work. It is aimed at Gov. Judy Martz, U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg, state House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, and unnamed other Flathead lawmakers.

A Kalispell woman, Mona Charles, says in the ad: "My electric bill has soared 30 percent and may double in October. Jobs have been lost, school programs slashed.

"Martz, Burns, Rehberg, Sliter and other Flathead legislators, in total, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from energy companies. The power company wrote the electrical deregulation laws, your Republican representative voted for it and they sent us the bill.

"Send your electric bill to Paul Sliter and Judy Martz. And ask them, 'Whose side are you on?' "

State Democratic Chairman Bob Ream said people in the Flathead "are really hot under the collar" over energy prices. Flathead Electric Cooperative already has raised rates to collect $17 million in increased revenue and plans to boost revenue by $32.2 million in October.

As a result, the Democrats decided to buy some radio advertising there on five stations, excluding the one owned by John Stokes, who has called environmentalists "Green Nazis." Ream said it also was an opportune time to run the ads because of a town meeting that Burns and Rehberg are sponsoring Thursday on energy issues in Kalispell.

At a meeting earlier this month, Democratic leaders and legislators began developing strategy on how to use the energy issue to their advantage in the 2002 election in hopes of winning back the state House and Senate from Republicans who have controlled both chambers since 1995. The party plans future advertising elsewhere but not till the fall, he said.

"We'll do it one step at a time and see how things go," Ream said.

In addition, a prominent Kalispell lawyer, Dale McGarvey, who served in the 1957 and 1959 Legislatures, has helped form a group called Families Against Deregulation that wants to gather signatures for an initiative to repeal the 1997 deregulation law.

McGarvey, a Democrat, said he wrote Ream to suggest an advertising campaign targeting some of the Republicans on energy issues.

"The people are up in arms over this," he said.

McGarvey said the state party wanted a donation from him and he told them he'd give some money "but I thought we needed some rifle-shot specific ads for the situation."

"I think that it was a terrible mistake to deregulate," he said. "You don't deregulate when you're short of power. I'm talking about the whole West that's short of power."

In response, Republican House Leader Sliter said he was surprised by the radio ads and criticized them.

"It's disappointing that they want to spend their time pointing fingers and laying blame rather than looking for viable solutions to the problem," Sliter said. "To me it sounds like they're accusing my colleagues and me of taking bribes, and I'm very offended by that."

Sliter said McGarvey's effort to repeal the 1997 deregulation law won't do anything to help Flathead Electric Cooperative's rates because it is a cooperative not covered by deregulation. The trouble is, he said, when the co-op bought PacifiCorp's assets in the Flathead, it entered into a contract to buy power from PacifiCorp. Starting Oct. 1 those rates are indexed on the Mid-Columbian market, where rates have been sky high.

"Repealing all the laws in the world isn't going to do a darn thing for fixing that contract," Sliter said.

He said that states that have deregulated electric utilities and those that still regulate utilities are all looking at large price increases.

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