For conservationists, vetoes took sting out of dim session – Last Best News, June 1, 2017

By Ed Kemmick
Last Best News
June 1, 2017

Richard Parks

legislative scorecard released this week by one of the state’s major conservation groups paints a stark picture of the partisan divide in Helena.

The Northern Plains Resource Council, based in Billings, tallied votes on seven pieces of legislation considered important by its members. With the state House and Senate both controlled by Republican majorities during the recently concluded 2017 Legislature, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the NPRC was on the losing side of all seven bills.

Nor was it too surprising that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed or issued an amendatory veto on the six bills opposed by the NPRC. (There was nothing he could do about the seventh—a seemingly popular bill that was introduced by a Republican and favored by Northern Plains, which died in committee.)

What was most striking was how little crossover voting there was. In the Senate, which has 50 members, 19 Republicans got a zero on the Northern Plains scorecard, while 14 Democrats scored 100 percent. That left just 17 senators who strayed from the party fold on at least one of the seven votes.

The situation was even starker in the House, which has 100 members. There, 50 of the 59 Republicans scored a zero, while 24 of the 41 Democrats scored 100 percent. That means 17 Democrats voted against the wishes the NPRC at least once, while only nine Republicans cast at least one vote that aligned with the group’s positions.

Not the worst session

Even so, said Richard Parks, a fishing guide in Livingston and a former chairman of the NPRC, it was by no means the worst session ever, and he’s lobbied on behalf of the organization every session for more than 30 years.

He said the 2017 session was “in the bottom half, but not the worst one.” That was partly because not all that many conservation-minded bills were introduced, since people knew how hard it would be to get much done this year.

And what disappointment there was, was alleviated by Bullock’s vetoes, for which Parks praised his “political courage.”

“One reason this wasn’t a really, really bad session,” he said, was that “at the end of the day, Gov. Bullock was willing to put the veto pen to a lot of stuff that without it would have been a screaming disaster.”

Among those vetoed were bills that would have repealed net metering incentives; created an exempt-well loophole for subdivisions; lowered requirements for notifying landowners of oil and gas drilling; and indefinitely extended Arch Coal’s lease on Otter Creek coal fields.

A particularly bad piece of legislation, from the NPRC’s perspective, was Senate Bill 337, which would have eliminated the Board of Environmental Review from every section of Montana Code. The NPRC report accompanying the scorecard said the board “serves as an important check on decisions made by DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), and has enabled increased citizen participation in the DEQ decision-making processes.”

Parks said he was “in the room” when the board was established, and at the time it was solidly supported by industry, which could appeal DEQ decisions to the board.

On the other hand, a fact related to that bill showed there were still pockets of bipartisanship in the Legislature. SB 337 was introduced by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, but Ankney voted in favor of a bill that the NPRC considered one of the most important pieces of legislation this session.

Property Assessed Clean Energy

That was SB 330, which would have made possible Property Assessed Clean Energy financing in Montana. As we explained in a story early in the session, the PACE program, already established in 32 states, would have allowed property owners to obtain no-money-down loans for energy-efficiency upgrades and pay them off over many years as part of their county property tax assessments.

SB 330, which had been introduced by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, sailed through the Senate on a 31-19 vote and seemed to be headed for passage in the House. Then, late in the session, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, assigned the bill to a committee that allowed it to die by tabling.

The bill had some strong opponents, including the Montana Bankers Association, Parks said, but it seemed to him and other observers that Knudsen wanted it to die simply because it was favored by Bullock, and Knudsen was unwilling to do the governor any favors at that point in the session.

It was tabled on a straight party-line vote, and supporters failed to “blast” it out of committee, which requires a super-majority vote. It was that vote that was counted for the NPRC scorecard, since only votes involving all members of a chamber are tallied.

If Knudsen had assigned it to any committee but Natural Resources, which became a “sink hole” of dead bills, Parks said, it probably would have moved to the floor and passed the House.

Still, Parks said, the PACE legislation involved a lot of moving parts and some complicated provisions, so it was something of a victory for it to have advanced as far as it did.

“We seem to have made considerable progress in explaining the legislation to people on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Though it’s too early to say what legislation the NPRC might seek to have introduced in the 2019 Legislature, Parks said, another stab at establishing a PACE program is almost surely in the cards. He said the program is not even technically an environmental one, but rather an economic and financial issue, and one aimed at energy independence.

Despite what critics might say, Parks said people in the NPRC “have never considered ourselves a partisan organization, but a public-interest organization.”

For the long-term, he said, the NPRC will continue to have a “broad dialogue,” within and outside the organization, to decide what issues are most important to people, and to pursue them regardless of party politics.