Ochenski 

Halftime report: Offensive bills run up score against environment

Montana’s legislative session hits the halfway mark this week as our citizen legislators flee back to their homes and families for the transmittal break. In the meantime, the political parties will crank up the rhetoric bragging about what a great job they’ve done so far. The truth, however, is that this session may well carry the dubious distinction as being the most destructive in decades to Montana’s bedrock environmental protection laws.

As predicted at session’s start, the issue looming largest in the minds of most legislators is the budget. Far from the glory days of a billion-dollar surplus, Montana has not escaped the impacts of the national economic recession. State trust funds and investment portfolios have lost hundreds of millions of dollars as tax revenues dwindle, aided by a precipitous decline in prices for oil and natural gas which had contributed significantly to the state’s formerly rosy revenue picture. Add in the spreading effects from the collapse of the housing market, the concurrent loss of timber and mill jobs and the moribund retail sector and you’ll begin to get the picture of what this Legislature faces in the fiscal arena.

To their credit both parties and the governor’s office have been pretty levelheaded about the budgetary realities facing our state. Gov. Brian Schweitzer twice reduced projected spending before the budget hit the Legislature. Since then, faced with falling revenues, the House and Senate appropriation sub-committees have been cautiously trimming planned increases while hoping to hold the line on necessary governmental services. Unfortunately, as the economic collapse puts more Montanans out of work every day, the demand for unemployment and other support services grows diametrically in relation to the budgetary dollars available to pay for such services. The most stunning example so far has been the Senate’s unwillingness to appropriate additional millions to pay for the expanded Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) despite the overwhelming approval of a ballot initiative by Montana voters.

Riding to the rescue, at least in part, is the promise of hundreds of millions in new federal dollars through President Obama’s stimulus packages. But here’s the rub—the stimulus dollars are one-time only funds, meaning they will not be there for future budgets. Consequently, the Legislature has decided to introduce a companion spending bill to separately deal with whatever new federal funds may eventually come to Montana. How it will all play out is uncertain at this time, but with another two months to go in the session, the final budgetary decisions are likely to be hammered out by the Republican-dominated Senate and the governor.

If the Legislature deserves moderate praise for dealing with the fiscal woes facing Montana, it equally deserves condemnation for trashing Montana’s long-standing environmental laws in favor of energy development. Again, as predicted, Schweitzer’s full-bore promotion of energy development in Montana looks like it’s going to bring with it the unintended consequence of a passel of new laws that will eliminate any further charade about the “clean and green” energy future Schweitzer has promised.

For instance, a package of horrible bills introduced by Rep. Llew Jones (R-Conrad) will seriously curtail environmental reviews of energy projects on state lands (HB529). Meanwhile, Jones’ HB483 will restrict opportunities for citizens to challenge or appeal agency decisions on air quality permits while allowing permit applicants the right to appeal agency decisions, bring in new information and challenge permit requirements. Unfortunately, Jones’ bills aren’t the only measures moving through the legislature that, at least at this time, appear slated to become law.

The Senate has its own rogue’s gallery of shortsighted measures that sacrifice long-term environmental protection for short-term energy jobs. Perhaps the worst is SB387, which environmental advocates dub “HB483 on steroids.” Sponsored by Republican Keith Bales, of Otter, this stinker of a bill limits citizen review of agency actions only to those who are “directly affected” by the proposed development, shortens the challenge period to two weeks after the agency decision and requires a new, tougher level of proof for the Board of Environmental Review (BER) to overturn agency actions. The Board of Environmental Review is also allowed to determine if any member of the public challenging agency decisions must post a bond. Considering the BER is a politically appointed panel, the potential for political abuse of public challenges to energy projects is glaringly obvious. Toss in the additional changes that give state agencies the right to extend permits indefinitely and allow permittees to operate under whatever laws existed at the time they were issued the permit, and this is one hellacious measure.

While the bad environmental bills are being sponsored and supported largely by Republicans, Sen. Jim Keane, a Butte Democrat, has already convinced the Senate to pass his SB417—a measure that prohibits legal challenges to state agency decisions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA)— with votes from fellow Democrats, including Butte’s Sen. Steve Gallus.

The terrible environmental bills that have cleared the House will likely sail through the Senate with the same Democratic support and head for the governor’s desk. Then comes the hour of decision for Schweitzer. Does he keep his promise of “clean and green” energy development and veto the measures which ensure minimal environmental review and appeals—or does he sign them into law?

If there’s any upside to this pending environmental tragedy, it’s that the worst bills are unlikely to survive a court challenge, since they violate Montana’s constitutional guarantee of a “clean and healthful” environment. But court challenges take time and money and much damage may be done in the meantime.

For now, the best thing citizens concerned with protecting Montana’s environment for present and future generations can do is contact their legislators during the transmittal break. Thank those legislators who voted to protect Montana’s environment—but hold the rascals who would sell us out for a few pieces of silver fully accountable for their shortsighted perfidy.

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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