Montana vs. the Machine 

Court rulings ding democracyfor now

The U.S. Supreme Court handed Montanans some very bad news last week by overturning two recent rulings by Montana's Supreme Court. First, the high court ruled in favor of out-of-state megacorporation Pennsylvania Power and Light, saying the corporation could not be charged rent on riverbeds occupied by their hydroelectric dams. The Court followed up that corporate kowtowing with another ruling that will allow, for the first time in a century, corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in so-called "independent expenditures" to influence state and local political races. The stage is now set for Montana vs. the Machine–which is just another way of describing a fight by the people against the corporatocracy which rules our media, courts and politics with an iron fist.

To understand the PPL case, one has to go back in Montana history to the tragic decision by the Montana Legislature to deregulate utilities, in the late 1990s. Aided and abetted by a Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, the Montana Power Company brought in a massive deregulation bill late in the '97 session.

MPC, the largest and oldest utility in the state, was a vertically integrated corporation that owned the sources of its gas and electric power as well as the distribution lines with which the power was delivered to consumers. The state allowed MPC to sell those vital utilities to consumers with the caveat that the company could charge consumers for virtually all of its building, operation and maintenance costs, but was restricted to a reasonable profit on those operations. The company was solid and its stocks were owned by thousands of Montanans who considered MPC "our" utility and believed, naively as it turned out, that the company's future was long and bright. Moreover, thanks to that regulatory structure, Montanans enjoyed the sixth-lowest electricity costs in the nation and the lowest in the region.

Despite there being no problem to solve, MPC rolled out a vision of how Montanans could enjoy even cheaper rates by allowing utilities to purchase power on the open market, because competition would drive rates down. To the Republicans, "competition" and "free market" are foundational ideological beliefs and, despite the fact that maybe a tiny handful of legislators could even explain or understand the implications of the bill, it was passed and sent to Racicot, who happily signed it into law.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, MPC's real motives were revealed as the company announced it would be selling off its generation assets—primarily the hydroelectric dams that provided the cheap electricity—to raise capital to transform itself into a telecommunications company boastfully named Touch America. Shortly thereafter, Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) bought the dams and reasonable power rates came to an end. Montanans now pay the highest electricity prices in the region.

Ironically, the Montana Power Company and its successor corporation also came to an end, albeit ingloriously. Both companies collapsed, pensions were lost and their stocks became worthless. Some might call it poetic justice for their legislative perfidy.

A few years afterward, Montana's Land Board decided that, since PPL's dams were occupying riverbeds to which the state claimed ownership, it was time to start charging them rent like everyone else who uses state lands. PPL challenged the move, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, so PPL appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in keeping with its overriding allegiance to corporations, ruled primarily in their favor last week that the lands occupied by the dams were not "navigable" waterways. The implications of that ruling, much like the implications of utility deregulation, will play out in the future.

In its second decision last week, the same U.S. Supreme Court followed up its highly controversial Citizens United ruling, in which the court magically gave corporations the same rights as real people and equated corporate political spending with free speech, and struck down Montana's century-old Corrupt Practices Act.

The Montana Supreme Court had ruled that the state's Corrupt Practices Act, which was implemented a century ago by citizen initiative to counter rampant corruption by the Anaconda Company, was constitutional and should stand intact. That ruling was applauded by advocates for citizen rights, political integrity and fair and honest elections.

But the handwriting was on the wall. Two of Montana's justices ruled against the state–although with great reservations–saying that the Citizens United decision would ultimately prevail over Montana's law. Unfortunately, last week's ruling proved them right.

The suspension of Montana's Corrupt Practices Act, like utility deregulation and the PPL ruling, will have impacts far beyond the courthouse. Many Montanans fear an influx of corporate spending that, in our lightly populated state, will have the ability to buy elections. Even former Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Karla Gray, who was an attorney and lobbyist for Montana Power Company, expressed dismay at the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, saying that as little as $60,000, not millions, could sway races–especially those for judges.

If there's a silver lining to the black clouds the U.S. Supreme Court has sent to Montana, it's that the stay of Montana's political spending law is temporary. The court ruled that the plaintiff in the case must file a writ and if it doesn't, the stay is lifted. Should the plaintiffs file, and should the court decide to hear the appeal of the Montana Supreme Court's ruling, the stay would be in effect until the high court issues a ruling.

But make no mistake, a seething undercurrent of discontent with the ascendency of corporate rule is afoot in America. Winter is over in much of the nation and the Occupy Movement and its ancillaries will once again seek to restore some balance between the influence of moneyed corporations and a true democracy that puts humans, not corporations, first. This battle is far from over.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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