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HELENA - Most Montana voters are concerned about future electricity prices, blame Montana Power Co. for the expected increase and, by a large margin, they disapprove of the 1997 state law that deregulated electricity, a new Lee Newspapers poll shows.

The poll also showed that a majority of voters did not approve of the way the 2001 Legislature dealt with the energy issue.

The answers are a good indication that energy figures to be a major issue in the 2002 legislative elections.

The Lee poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. of Washington, D.C., interviewed 625 Montana voters - 317 women and 308 men - from April 30 to May 2 by telephone. The margin for error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Energy was one of the two or three dominant issues of the 2001 Legislature, which adjourned April 21. Lawmakers spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out how to address the issue both for industries now facing sky-high power rates and for residential and commercial customers in Montana Power Co.'s service territory who face higher rates after mid-2002 because of the 1997 law restructuring and partially deregulating electric utilities in Montana, particularly MPC.

The legislative solutions were a mixed bag, praised somewhat by many Republicans and condemned by most Democrats.

The poll asked voters whether they approved or disapproved of how the 2001 Legislature dealt with energy.

Fifty-one percent of voters disapproved of how the Legislature dealt with energy, while 35 percent approved and 14 percent were undecided.

Women were far more sharply critical than men, with 57 percent of female voters disapproving of what the Legislature did on energy, while 45 percent of men disapproved. Thirty-nine percent of men approved of the legislative action on energy, while 31 percent of women did.

The poll also showed that Montanans are concerned about future prices of electricity in the state. It asked if voters were very concerned, somewhat concerned, not concerned or not sure about energy prices,

Ninety percent of Montanans are concerned (56 percent very concerned and 34 percent somewhat concerned) about future energy prices, while 9 percent weren't concerned and 1 percent weren't sure.

The poll brought about the 1997 state law that partially deregulated electricity in Montana and then asked whether Montana voters approved or disapproved it.

Seventy-one percent of Montana voters now disapprove of the 1997 law, the poll showed, while 16 percent approve and 13 percent are not sure. Slightly more women than men disapproved of the law, by a 73 percent to 69 percent margin.

These are similar to what voters said in a December 2000 Lee poll, when 69 percent disapproved the law, while 16 percent approved of it and 15 percent were undecided.

In contrast, a similar question on a December 1997 Lee poll showed 46 percent of the people approved electric deregulation, while 32 percent opposed it and 22 percent were undecided.

The May poll also asked whom voters blamed for the expected increases in electricity prices from a list read to them.

Results showed 57 percent blamed Montana Power Co., while 16 percent held Republicans responsible. Six percent held industry responsible, 6 percent blamed former Gov. Marc Racicot and 3 percent blamed Democrats. Twelve percent weren't sure.

In fact, Montana Power Co. proposed the electricity deregulation that the Republican-controlled 1997 Legislature passed, with industries and Racicot also strongly behind the bill. Most Republicans wound up supporting the bill, while a majority of Democrats opposed it.

Finally, the poll asked people to choose from a list of estimates about what they think will happen to Montana Power Co.'s electric bills after a price freezes ends June 30, 2002.

Forty-seven percent predicted that rates would rise by 50 percent, 19 percent estimated rates would rise by 25 percent, 13 percent guessed they would go up by 100 percent, 7 percent figured rates would jump by more than 100 percent. Three percent projected rates would stay the same and 11 percent were not sure.

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