Toole vs. Taylor 

In this battle, Montana consumers won

The outcome of the recount in the race between Ken Toole and Mike Taylor for the Public Service Commission (PSC) is finally over. Mike Taylor’s campaign billboards claimed he voted against the disastrous 1997 utility deregulation enacted by Gov. Marc Racicot and his Republican majorities. But a review of Toole’s and Taylor’s actions while both were in the Senate clearly shows that in this race, the Toole victory means Montana consumers won.

For those who are new to the state—or for whom the details of messy political battles past may have grown misty—a quick review may be useful. Right at the end of the 1997 legislative session, long after most of the deadlines were past, the Republicans suspended the rules to allow for the late introduction of a bill. That bill, which became known as “utility deregulation,” was extremely complex and well over 100 pages long. In all truth, it would have been prudent to have spent a full interim studying the matter and only then have it introduced into the legislative session after everyone had some idea of what it contained, what it would do, and what the effects would be on Montana’s resources and consumers.

To make a long and ugly story short, that didn’t happen. Instead, Racicot, the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, and the massive lobbying corps for the Montana Power Company jammed the legislation through the process with minimal debate, little understanding, and, as one might have expected, disastrous consequences. The Republicans were apparently convinced that if the state’s largest and longest-standing utility was deregulated, the mythical angel of “competition” would somehow bring electricity prices down for Montana citizens and businesses.

Considering that Montanans enjoyed the sixth-lowest prices for electricity in the nation at that time, the claims seemed dubious at best. But the real disaster was never discussed or even imagined. Within six months of the ill-fated legislation’s passage, Montana Power Company announced it was selling off its coal-fired power plants, its hydroelectric dams and associated water rights, and getting out of the utility business. Shortly thereafter, the utility assets Montanans had paid for over generations through their power bills were sold off to out-of-state corporations—and with them went control of our future. Shortly after that, Montana Power Company, the major energy supplier to Montanans for more than a century, no longer existed, stiffing those who held its formerly solid stocks and pensions as well as all those who relied on the company for their energy.

Mike Taylor, who was a state senator while all this was going on, voted both for and against the dereg bill—although his billboards only mentioned his vote against the measure. Ken Toole was elected to the Senate in 2000, and in the 2001 Legislature he introduced a number of bills to try to reverse Montana’s disastrous loss of energy assets. Among those bills was Senate Bill 503, which would have allowed the state to issue bonds to buy back both the dams and their associated water rights, with revenue from the sales of electricity paying back the bond debt.

Toole’s bill was co-sponsored by more than 50 legislators, which is a clear indication that many policymakers recognized the grievous error and wanted to reverse it. Not a single co-sponsor, however, was a Republican. The bill was referred to the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee upon which Taylor sat, and at the hearing, a long line of citizens and groups testified in support. Chalk it up to experience, but Toole learned a hard lesson that day. Without a single Republican co-sponsor, the Republican majority in the committee tabled the bill without a second thought, effectively killing it.

In a desperate attempt to bring the bill back to life—or at least give it the dignity of a Senate debate—an effort was made to pull it out of committee and onto the Senate floor. That effort, too, was defeated by the Republican majorities in the Senate on a vote of 28-20. Only one Republican, John Cobb of Augusta, voted to bring the bill out of committee—the rest, including Taylor and now-Minority Leader of the Senate Corey Stapleton, voted against it.

Eventually the attempt to buy back the dams went to a vote as Initiative 145. But the utilities that bought the dams spent $2 million to defeat it, claiming that if Montanans owned their own power production facilities, our costs would somehow be higher. Now, some five years later, as Montanans pay the highest electricity prices in our region, we see both the fallacy of that argument and the idiocy of blind Republican obedience to the wishes of corporate America instead of the well-being of Montana constituents.

It seems fitting all these years later that it is Ken Toole who will go to the Public Service Commission instead of Mike Taylor, who clearly voted against the interests of Montanans when the decision was before him. Taylor painted himself as a consumer advocate, but the record told the story and Montanans, who had been so horrendously misled before, were not so gullible this time around.

There are nearly 100 utility and energy bills already requested for introduction into the 2007 legislative session. Those bills run the gamut from supporting alternative, renewable energy to subsidizing more coal development and cutting industry even more regulatory and environmental breaks. Importantly, however, one of the primary topics will be the attempted re-regulation of Montana’s utility sector.

While the road back to the vertically integrated system we enjoyed under the former Montana Power Company is long and perhaps impassible, the advantages of a regulated system simply cannot be denied. The Public Service Commission will have significant input in the process, testifying before committees and analyzing the potential benefits or drawbacks for consumers. In the coming debate Montanans win big by having Ken Toole, a bona fide consumer advocate, on our side.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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