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HELENA - Gov. Judy Martz on Saturday signed into law one of the major energy bills of the legislative session and a key part of PPL's deal to sell electricity to Montana Power Co. at what they said was lower-than-market prices.

Martz, who was in California for the Western Governors Association for part of the week, signed House Bill 474 into law on the last possible day when she returned.

HB474, sponsored by House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, was an oft-amended bill that finally wound up with a combination of provisions.

The law allows the Board of Investments to help finance loans for energy plants meeting certain criteria; creates a Montana power authority; gives the state Board of Examiners authority to issue revenue bonds for the power authority; and provides for full-cost recovery for MPC as it purchases power.

In addition, passage of HB474 was one of three conditions that were part of a proposed 11th hour deal in which PPL Montana agreed to sell 500 megawatts of power, in 100-megawatt blocks, to Montana Power for 4 cents a kilowatt-hour, or $40 per megawatt hour. The power would be available for five years, starting July 1, 2002, which is when a price cap on the cost of electricity expires.

In exchange, the utilities anticipated that legislators would pass HB474 with full-cost recovery and kill SB512, by Sen. Mike Halligan, D-Missoula, to charge an excess revenue tax. The Legislature followed suite with both requests on the final day of the session.

The final condition was for the Public Service Commission to drop plans to regulate PPL Montana's generation rates. The PSC asserted its authority to regulate PPL generation in March and so far hasn't changed its position.

"HB474 contains several critical elements of a long-term solution to secure affordable energy for all Montana consumers," Martz said in a written statement.

She said HB474 names a default supplier (MPC), extends consumer protections and allows customers who had previously left the default supplier to return. In addition, Martz said the law creates a critically needed power authority for consumers and allows the authority to issue up to 500 megawatts in revenue bonds to build or buy transmission facilities.

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