The not-new station wagon pulled out of the Post Office parking lot and cruised slowly down the street, driven by what appeared to be your regular old Montanan. In the back windows on both sides were obviously handmade signs, black magic marker on brown cardboard, with the words sloping unintentionally toward the bottom corner: “Buy the Dams, Vote FOR I-145.”
Maybe there’s a better example of what this battle is all about, but I haven’t seen one yet. Here’s a citizen’s initiative campaign that is not only grassroots, it’s from the very soil itself. While the mega-utilities PPL and Avista pour millions into court challenges and TV ads to kill the initiative, Montanans make their own signs by hand and stick them up in their cars to speak directly to their fellow Montanans. No shuck, no jive—just a simple message that resonates across the political and economic spectrum. “Buy the Dams, Vote FOR I-145.”
Two nights later, during a radio debate on the issue, the representative of the opponents, misleadingly named “Taxpayers against I-145” (since they are more than 99 percent funded by the utilities) sounds tired and worn out as she tries to make credible arguments against acquiring the hydroelectric facilities that Montanans bought and paid for with their electric rates over the last century. Her logic is as feeble and tired as her voice: “It’s too risky.” “It’s too complex.” “It just isn’t done.”
In the course of the debate, callers came online with their questions and statements. Perhaps surprising the big money boys, their million-dollar ad campaigns don’t seem to be making converts against the measure. Out of all the callers, only one flat out opposed the initiative and even he said electricity deregulation has been a dismal failure. All the other Montanans supported the initiative and saw it, correctly, as a way to once again benefit from the energy resources we paid to build.
But the final caller really hit the nail on the head. Addressing their arguments directly, the caller said opponents were insulting Montanans by making it seem like we were somehow too dumb to run our own dams. As he succinctly pointed out, it was Montanans who built the dams, it is Montanans who have maintained them since they were built, and it is Montanans who continue to operate them, keeping the turbines spinning and producing some of the lowest-cost electricity in the nation.
The only thing that has changed, and the base reason for the “Buy the Dams” initiative, is that Montanans are now paying significantly above the cost of production for our electricity. We know we’re getting ripped off by the corporations that bought the dams after the now-disgraced Montana Power Company sold out its namesake state for a lot more than 30 pieces of silver. We also know that the water rights and associated recreational lands got sold with the dams and we’re not looking forward to “No Trespassing” signs when we try to fish or hike along our rivers and reservoirs.
That the former Montana Power Company now lies in financial ruin, its stock at less than one percent of its former value, may be karmically justified to many. But for those whose pensions and retirement portfolios evaporated with the value of the company’s stock, it is just another tragic rip-off by the corporate kingpins who took the money and ran.
Latest reports indicate the utilities plan to double their spending before the election rolls around, which will bring their total to more than $2 million. Against this onslaught of corporate spending, which is ironically using the profits made off Montanans to convince us that we are wrong, the proponents have been able to raise one dollar for every 10 spent by the utilities. No surprise, really, since our fellow citizens don’t have a captive utility market of hundreds of thousands of Montanans from whom they can skim the cream of corporate profit. Instead, they have to ask Montanans, who are already struggling with lowest in the nation wages and ever-rising costs, to kick in their hard-earned, desperately- needed dollars.
Meanwhile, the same Republican governor and Legislature that brought us deregulation, are opposing the purchase of the dams, continuing to be toadies for their corporate masters. Knowing that Montanans will, when pushed against the wall, take actions to protect themselves and their families, these failed leaders would like us to change our century-old initiative process that gives us the right to bring citizen-based causes to the ballot box—and to reject their bad political judgment.
They didn’t like that we banned nuclear waste in the ’80s, banned cyanide mining in the ’90s, or that we are trying to regain control over our own energy future in the first years of this new century. So the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Martz placed CA-37 and CA-38 on the ballot to make it’s much harder for “we, the people” to qualify citizen initiatives.
Instead of the time-honored “one-person, one-vote” rule, these measures will allow a few sparsely populated counties to determine what makes it to the ballot for the vast majority of Montanans. Instead of basing our democracy on population, we will now base it on geography, limiting the power of the people by requiring a higher percentage of signatures from more counties and far-flung legislative districts.
Don’t think for a minute that these efforts are not connected—they are. The citizens are rebelling against some very bad deals the Republicans stuck us with during their 14-year Reign of Error. They want us to shut up and go away. The choice is obvious, and from where this writer stands, Montanans are a long ways from too dumb to figure out what’s good for them. Control our energy future by doing what the handmade sign said: “Buy the Dams: Vote FOR I-145.” Preserve our right to correct political blunders through the initiative process in the future, vote AGAINST CA-37 and 38. You’ll be glad you did.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.