Their opponents have 10 times as much money as they do, and they don’t have the support of either major political party, but supporters of the Dam Cheap Power initiative mobilized enough foot soldiers that they will likely get it on the ballot this November.
If approved by voters, I-145 would create the Montana Public Power Commission to examine Montana’s privately owned dams and consider purchasing them to be run by the state. With the deadline for initiatives to gather enough qualifying signatures having expired June 21, backers of I-145 are optimistic.
“We’re feeling pretty confident that we’ve qualified,” says Paul Edwards, chair of the Dam Cheap Power board.
The board relied primarily on the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) to gather the signatures to qualify the initiative. MontPIRG Executive Director David Ponder says the group turned in more than 28,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Friday. In order to qualify for the November ballot, an initiative needs the signatures of five percent of the state’s total qualified voters (20,510 people), and five percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative districts. The signatures now go to county election officials who must verify that everything is proper with the names and addresses and the secretary of state’s office will make its final decision in mid-July.
MontPIRG sent teams to Helena, Bozeman, and Great Falls, and in the last couple of weeks canvassers took road trips to Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Butte, Anaconda, and Billings. The initiative’s focus on energy self-sufficiency resonated with people around the state, Ponder says. Nonetheless, if the measure does officially qualify for the ballot, it will face a tough fight. The Republican Party has come out against it and the Democratic Party has not endorsed it.
“We’re looking to build a progressive coalition of citizens on a nonpartisan basis,” says Edwards, noting that Green Party chapters were a key source of help. The current owners of most of Montana’s hydroelectric dams, Pennsylvania Power & Light and Avista, have formed a group called Energy Producers Against Property Confiscation to fight the initiative. They have raised hundreds of thousand dollars and brought in high-powered political consultants and attorneys.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Ponder says. “It makes it more difficult to run a campaign when you have that type of money against you, but frankly, I think the people in the state see right through it.”
Of the two other proposals that went to the secretary of state’s office on Friday, I-146, which would direct more tobacco settlement money to education and prevention, appears to have garnered enough signatures, while a constitutional amendment outlawing video gambling seems to have failed.