Ochenski 

End game: Bad bills loom over Legislature’s last month

Montana’s biennial legislative session still has almost another month to run, but as the saying goes “you can see the end from here.”  Unfortunately, the way it’s shaping up it appears that the bad bills are going to far outweigh the good bills. That’s especially true in the environmental arena, where 30 years of bedrock environmental protection law has been successfully assailed thanks to, as they like to call it, “bipartisan cooperation.”

To be sure, there will be some exciting moments in the last few weeks of the session as the budget faces yet another upcoming revenue estimate and lawmakers wrestle with final decisions on where and when to spend one-time federal funds. If, as in the initial revisions, the projected state revenue picture continues to darken, it will mean the Republican-controlled Senate Finance and Claims Committee will have to institute millions more in spending reductions. 

This week’s spat between Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Anna Whiting Sorrell and key legislators may give us some idea just where those reductions will take place. The current budget bills provide funding for key programs but require the agency to identify $115 million in reductions by 2011 in anticipation of falling revenues. Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, chair of the appropriations committee, thinks the agency can find that much in savings and efficiencies considering its total budget of $3.2 billion. 

“We’re giving them 18 months to figure [it] out,” he told reporters late last week. “The last thing I want to see are people cut, in their time of need. At the same time, you can see the train coming. And if we do not prepare for impacts that are not going to be easy to deal with, then shame on us.”

Sorrell, however, sees it differently.

“We find it very contradictory that the Legislature is considering substantial cuts when the federal government is sending millions to the state to help our economy and help people really in need,” she said. “They aren’t cutting new programs. They are asking us to look at what we currently provide.” 

But while the Senate decides what to do with the final spending bills, some terrible environmental bills have already passed or are likely to pass in the coming days and are headed to Schweitzer for his decision.  The governor’s options on dealing with the bills are limited to issuing a veto, an amendatory veto, signing the bills or allowing the measures to become law without his signature.

For example, Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, sponsored perhaps the most egregious of the environmental destruction bills so far. HB 483 masquerades as an effort to “streamline” environmental permitting for energy facility projects, but in truth it basically guts the public’s right to participate in decisions—public participation long guaranteed by the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). Should the measure become law, those seeking to appeal energy project decisions would have to meet a higher level of proof; wouldn’t be allowed to introduce any new information after the application process (although the permit applicants could); could be required to go to district court instead of the Board of Environmental Review (BER) and face bonding requirements from either the district court or the BER to challenge a project; would allow the Department of Environ-mental Quality to extend air permits indefinitely regardless of changes in available pollution control technology; and would only require energy facilities to comply with state laws as they existed at the time of the permit application.

HB 483 has already passed the Legislature with bipartisan support and is on its way to Schweitzer. What, exactly, the governor will do with the bill remains unknown. Environmental advocates have offered numerous suggested amendments to try and limit the measure’s damage, but truth be told, no amount of amendments will turn this stinker of a bill into anything resembling a good bill. We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks, but at this point in the process environmental advocates think Schweitzer will likely seek to amend the measure rather than issue a veto.

If there’s any good news regarding the bad energy and environment bills, it’s that at least one of them, SB 440, is still sitting in a House committee on a tie vote. The radical bill, sponsored by Kelly Gebhardt, R-Roundup, would simply exempt any air quality permit—not just those for energy projects—from MEPA review. The equation is simple here: No MEPA review means the public is excluded from government decisions that have the ability to directly affect their homes, businesses, health and environment. Keeping this one in committee would be good, but as we’ve seen far too often, crossover Democrats have been complicit in passing the largely Republican-backed efforts to trash the environment and may be tempted to do so once more.

There are a lot more bad environmental bills out there than just HB 483, but the seminal question is why the Legislature is pursuing these measures. For one thing, the recession has significantly lowered projections for energy as businesses slow down or close and consumers reduce costs by conserving. The recent rush to develop all available energy sources—dirty or clean, finite or renewable—now seems both unwise and unnecessary. To give Montana’s environment second billing to energy production by cutting our citizens out of the permitting processes also makes no sense. And finally, as we know through long experience, trashing the environment for short-term gains has never paid off for Montanans.

If you want to protect the state for present and future generations, there’s still an opportunity to contact the governor and your legislators and weigh in against the bad bills. It looks like a long shot to stop them, but at this point a long shot may be all we have.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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