The Helena Independent Record publishes letters from readers in the Opinion section. Here are this week's letters.
To submit a letter to the editor, go here.
Be afraid, NorthWestern Energy ratepayers
Every Montanan who receives a bill from NorthWestern Energy should be alarmed about SB 331. After public outrage over SB 278, it was tabled and replaced by SB 331, but it’s essentially the same bill with very minor changes. Under the guise of saving Colstrip, the bill prohibits regulatory oversight of our monopoly utility’s existing share of that facility. Nothing in the bill prevents early closure of the plant, which is looking increasingly likely as West Coast utilities abandon their shares of Colstrip.
No matter when that happens, the bill would force ratepayers to pay 100% of not only NWE’s cleanup costs (which are expected to be huge), but all of its undepreciated investment costs — hundreds of millions of dollars — amortized over 30 years. In short, ratepayers will be paying for NWE’s bad investments long after the plant closes. Shareholders are sheltered from these costs. In analyzing the bill’s impacts, the PSC’s professional staff concluded that “SB 331 removes a potentially sizable portion of risk assigned to the utility and its stockholders and shifts that risk entirely to ratepayers.”
Senator Duane Ankney of Colstrip, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, rammed the bill through committee, allowing only 20 minutes of testimony by opponents. Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman testified against the bill, calling it “crony capitalism” and declaring that it “cripples and renders the PSC irrelevant.” He added that “every penny of cost will be passed on to ratepayers.” Jason Brown, of the Montana Consumer Council, said the bill “turns regulation on its head by protecting the monopoly … instead of the people regulation is supposed to protect — the captive consumer.” SB 331 is moving at lightning speed through the Legislature. Please tell your legislators that gutting oversight authority is bad for ratepayers and to vote NO on SB 331.
Rising gas prices could keep people in
Well, the boys of the square coffee cup are a bit relieved that the price of gas is going up. We were afraid it may stay low — well, lower. Money we were saving allowed us to spend more around the Helena area. Now we will not have to buy as much. And those new planned projects around the house can be cut back. Many of us are relieved because we had been putting on a few pounds eating a little better. We will now get to cut back here also. We are also happy to see the courts are still busy with lawsuits to stop the pipeline from Canada, which would help keep prices down.
There are a few questions that arose from all this cheer. Why is this going on? A few radio reports said that part of the problem is Venezuela, that we had stopped importing oil from there and so a shortage. Well, what happened to the reports that we were now exporting oil and becoming more independent in this area?
Then there is the old fallback report of the oil refineries being worked on, so this also creates a shortage. Well I would reckon the truth is out there, just where who knows.
All in all, if prices continue to rise our smiling faces may not be seen in as many places and there may be a few more empty motel rooms and campsites. Oh well, maybe the tourists will fill them.
Charlie P. Hull Jr.
NorthWestern Energy should be held accountable
I hope that NorthWestern Energy will be held accountable for its decisions just like any other business or individual. My mother, Polly Holmes, a housewife, served for 10 years in the Legislature 50 years ago to hold energy companies accountable to the people. Since then, we captive consumers have been screwed over and over by our energy companies, which have made money in part by passing the costs of bad decisions on to us.
Now we're faced with SB 331 that would allow NorthWestern Energy to saddle consumers with yet more of its terrible decisions to uphold our addiction to coal while slow-tracking clean technologies. In what other sector of business is a private company able to avoid the costs of its own mistakes and still be guaranteed a profit? We deserve an energy future tied to clean new tech, not abusive contracts with badly managed companies. Our young people cry out for the clean environment the Montana constitution promises us, yet NWE appears more concerned with its shareholders. I'd be furious if I was a young person whose future was on the line. Please urge your senator to oppose SB 331.
SB 329 encourages economic speculation
The legislature and Gov. Bullock need to reject Senate Bill 329. It’s bad public policy and it encourages economic speculation at the expense of Montana landowners. The bill could extend leases by years for taxpayer-owned minerals to coal companies who haven’t broken ground for a decade. If you aren’t mining, you shouldn’t be tying up resources on speculation.
I ranch and irrigate on the Tongue River south of Miles City, and for many years, my ranch was under threat of condemnation by the Tongue River Railroad. I understand the impacts of speculation all too well. It’s about property rights. Because in all the years the project sat in limbo, so too did our ranches. Dozens of us were unable to install new irrigation systems or fences because we didn’t know if, when, or where we’d have a railroad disrupt them and render them unusable. Some of my neighbors were unable to sell their property because nobody wants to buy a parcel of land with an uncertain future. When the proposal went away, the places sold just fine.
Companies should have to either mine or give up their leases to create more certainty for their neighbors.
Courageous people are speaking up in favor of Medicaid expansion
“To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart and to sing it to them when they have forgotten.” ― Arne Garborg, 1851-1924
I love Montana! I want to sing that song to you who represent Montana because I think you have forgotten. Montanans as a whole have always stopped to help and reach out to a neighbor. It’s who we are.
During the hearing for HB 425 (Medicaid expansion), there were several individuals providing testimony, sharing their success stories related to Medicaid expansion. Did you notice how most of them who held notes were shaking uncontrollably? Can you imagine the courage it took for them to speak out to those who are supposedly representing them and who may judge them? These are whom I ask you to remember, these courageous people who have fought insurmountable odds.
These courageous people are our neighbors and relatives. They are veterans, Native Americans, college students, young people, older people. They are people affected by job layoffs without insurance, chronic illness, conditions they were born with, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, cancer, and injuries/accidents to name a few.
Do you have fiscal considerations? Bryce Ward, an economics professor from the University of Montana, reminded us in an April 2018 interview with NPR that Medicaid expansion in its current form has been good for the Montana economy. Most Montana hospitals would agree to this — cutting the number of people who use this program would be bad for Montana’s economy, which affects Montana health care workers and business owners who depend on those health care workers. HB 658 with its numerous sidebars will decrease the participation in expanded Medicaid.
Remember the song that is in your heart that encouraged you to run for office to represent the people of Montana.
Marshal program is wrong for schools
Fear is real but all responses to fear are not reasonable or desirable. An undesirable response to fear seems to be influencing a particular bill this legislative session.
Currently House Bill 567 promotes the development of a school marshal program to pay and train employees or contracted individuals to serve as an armed response to school threats.
This program will authorize certain persons to provide lethal force in threat situations after a trivial amount of training at the Law Enforcement Academy. This training will be far short of the training required by any rookie law enforcement officer in the state or required by traditional school resource officers.
Decisions about application of lethal force must be the most difficult and controversial that a lawful peace officer will make. Those decisions require excellent marksmanship skills under duress, stress response understanding, situational awareness training, knowledge of alternative actions to take, and clear understanding of the law.
Yet, somehow, all these skills are going to be taught in a one-time very abbreviated course to allow payment to individuals for carrying lethal weapons in public schools.
We expect professionals to provide education, administration, and, even, repairs to public schools. Yet we are promoting a program that places lethal power into the hands of non-professionals.
Proper armed response in schools requires properly trained professional law enforcement, not amateurs playing the role.
SB 331: A blank check for NorthWestern Energy
We recently traveled to the Montana Legislature hoping to comment on Senate Bill 331 and how it would affect Montana’s elderly. As former emergency medical technicians, we saw how difficult it was for many elderly people to make ends meet.
SB 331, sponsored by Sen. Tom Richmond, replaces the highly controversial SB 278, which he withdrew following abundant criticism. Richmond’s new bill still transfers the risks of owning, operating and cleanup from NorthWestern Energy shareholders to its 370,000 Montana customers, without the historic oversight of the Public Service Commission (PSC). NorthWestern Energy is a regulated monopoly with “captive” customers. The PSC’s responsibility is to create a fair balance between company profit and ratepayer costs.
Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant’s four units are owned primarily by out-of-state utilities in Washington and Oregon who seek to get out of Colstrip altogether around the year 2027. NorthWestern, the only Montana service-area provider, owns 30 percent of Colstrip Unit 4. They claim they could buy another 20 percent of Unit 4 from an unidentified owner for $1. But SB 331 says that ratepayers will be stuck with all remediation costs for NorthWestern’s existing share of the plant and any new share, estimated by the Department of Environmental Quality at $400 million to $700 million. SB 331 purports to add “sideboards” to SB 278, but it does not.
At the hearing of the Senate Energy Committee on March 19, proponents included NorthWestern, unions, PSC Commissioner Bob Lake, Colstrip’s mayor and residents. They want to keep Colstrip’s high-paying jobs.
Public testimony on this significant bill was constrained to a mere 20 minutes per side, insufficient for such a complex bill intending to deregulate Colstrip and stick it to ratepayers. Only five opponents had time to speak, but their testimony was troubling. Some of their comments follow:
- Zach Rogala, PSC staff: “This bill is nothing about saving Colstrip; this is all about a blank check for NorthWestern to its shareholders.”
- Republican PSC Commissioner Roger Koopman: “I am not unsympathetic to what’s happening. But… I don’t believe this bill would be helpful at all. It hurts the ratepayers. It hurts the people of Colstrip, and it cripples, frankly, and renders irrelevant the Public Service Commission and enriches the NorthWestern Energy monopoly. This is frankly a classic example of crony capitalism and perhaps even corporate welfare. It guarantees that NorthWestern is shielded and protected from the work of the Public Service Commission, that no matter how prematurely NorthWestern shuts down Colstrip 4, every penny of cost will be passed on to ratepayers.”
- Gary Buchanan, first director of Montana’s Department of Commerce who served under six governors: “If… NorthWestern utilizes its extensive revenue-producing authority granted in this bill with no PSC oversight, your constituents will see significant raises in their monthly bills. It is the height of naivete to believe Montana need not regulate natural monopolies… I see visions of the past. I think this is corporate welfare.” (As quoted by Leia Larsen of the Montana Free Press.)
- Dave Lewis, longtime state budget director and former legislator: “I spent a lot of my time from 2000 to 2014 dealing with the wreckage of deregulation… Don’t find yourself 20 years from now where I am now. Don’t be regretting what this may do. This is going to stick it to the ratepayers.”
Answering questions, Senator Richmond said, “We have people who intervene in that (the PSC) process whose principal purpose is to shut down coal mining and coal generation.” Pressed to explain, he mentioned “environmental groups” like the Montana Environmental Information Center.
So much for democracy. So much for public participation.
Urge Gov. Steve Bullock and your legislators to vote "no" on SB 331.
Harold and Jan Hoem are members of Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow (MELT). They write from Missoula.
So what if Medicaid expansion is socialism
In response to a “Your Turn” submitted by some 15 state legislators entitled “Medicaid expansion is socialism,” I would like to ask, so what?
Socialism seems to have picked up a sinister connotation. The common definition of socialism is something like, “a social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange is owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” This could describe American institutions like a fire department, a police department, the Highway Department, or a city utility like garbage, water and sewer service. In this light, the American application of socialism is a method of supplying critical services to individuals who might not find them affordable or practical by sharing the expense with the masses.
Like capitalism, socialism can have a dark side. This was demonstrated by the tyranny in socialist regimes such as the USSR, Communist China and North Korea. To be fair, we must differentiate between pure socialism and a tyrannical application.
Socialized health care meets the requirements of an American social order. The Canadian and European socialized health care systems certainly have some faults but Canadians and Europeans do not go bankrupt for medical reasons.
Pastors should stick to telling us how to build harmony and unity
I appreciate what pastors Mark Wilson and Steve Brehe are trying to accomplish by admonishing Christians not to fight about politics among themselves or in their families. However, I feel the wording of Wilson's admonition showed political bias, and I know Brehe will definitely show his political bias, which appears to be anti- Trump on the part of both pastors.
Admonishing us not to listen to only news sources that support our views is poorly timed in light of the fact that we now have absolute proof that the mainstream media has been outright lying to America for over two years in an attempt to destroy a duly elected president, and that the right-wing radio hosts spoke truth.
I agree that we should not let politics divide us, and that we should love one another. At the same time, the Bible tells us to seek justice and righteousness. We are at a point in our national life that we do need to press forward to see justice done and to make sure that this type of travesty never happens again. So in the coming articles these two men intend to present, I would ask that they not talk negatively about those who disagree with their political views, but rather, to humbly stick to telling us ways to build harmony and unity among ourselves.That is a much-needed subject, and I thank them for their willingness to take this on.
President's actions assault the Constitution
We are a Republic, a government of laws, not men.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a concerted effort to create an imperial presidency not subject to checks and balances.
Congress passes laws setting policy and establishing budgets. The theory of the “Unitary Executive” claims the president can change these laws at will. The theory claims the executive is not subject to Congressional budgets. The Constitution grants power of the purse to the House, not the Executive.
The charge of the presidency is to faithfully execute the laws — passed by Congress. The radical “Unitary Executive” undermines the constitutional role of Congress by turning the president into an unrestrained, unfettered CEO.
Bush’s lawyer John Yoo claimed the president does not need the approval of Congress to wage war, despite what the Constitution says about the role of Congress.
Today we are seeing this radical theory used to undermine the budget process.
Using federal funds to build a wall was explicitly denied by both the House and the Senate. Now we are seeing this radical theory used to subvert Congress and fund this controversial project.
Then there is the unprecedented treatment of the Mueller report. Our Constitution is under assault.
Shame on the parks department
An article in “Nature Conservancy" (Spring 2019) reinforced my thinking after seeing our Parks Dept. selling off a little piece of nature in our downtown to the highest bidder – the plot at the corner of Broadway and Cruse. Shame on the Park Dept. Our senses, our whole reason for living in Helena, vs. the other big cities of Montana is the numerous spots of greenery; and then to gloat on the price for such a worthless piece of ground! Open your eyes to what is best for the people who spend time downtown! I say buy it back.
Celebrating anniversary of Healthy Montana Kids
This spring marks the 10-year anniversary of Healthy Montana Kids. Until 2009, tens of thousands of Montana children had no health coverage; no way for their families to pay for a doctor visit or a hospital stay. Montana families, working to make ends meet, were one childhood medical emergency away from bankruptcy — praying every day that their son or daughter would not get sick. I met hundreds of these families face to face and saw first-hand their stress, their frustration and their tears.
Time after time, the Montana Legislature defeated measures to fix this problem. Eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program was capped at 165 percent of the federal poverty level — about $30,000 combined household income for a family of four. In 2003 and 2005, the Legislature killed bills to raise the cap to 200 percent. In 2007, the Legislature barely allowed an increase to 175 percent. Tens of thousands of kids remained uninsured.
In 2008, Montanans were fed up, and I-155 was born. I-155 combined the CHIP program and children’s Medicaid behind a new home-grown storefront called "Healthy Montana Kids." HMK increased CHIP eligibility to 250 percent of the federal poverty level and allowed Medicaid to enroll kids up to 185 percent. It eliminated the asset test for kids, simplified the application and allowed hospitals and schools and other enrollment partners to sign kids up under streamlined presumptive eligibility guidelines. All of this was done without a tax increase, using existing premium tax and federal matching funds. In November 2008, Montanans passed I-155 by a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent. That is what we call a landslide.
Ten years ago, a pitched battle was fought in the Legislature between those who wanted to honor the will of Montana voters and those who did not. Fortunately, this time, thanks to the loud voice of the people, the opposition backed down and our kids won.
Healthy Montana Kids has become part of the landscape of Montana. Former DPHHS official Mary Dalton called it “probably the most universally popular program that I’ve ever been associated with.” For Jamie Newman, who gathered signatures for I-155, it meant being able to take her daughter Charlotte to the doctor for checkups. For Maarten Fisher, it meant getting his son Sam’s broken leg fixed without crippling medical bills. For Brie Oliver, who is now the director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, HMK allowed her 3-year-old daughter Jillian to have a tonsillectomy that “literally changed her life” and provided a temporary bridge while Jillian’s dad finished his schooling, started a new job and the family achieved financial stability.
The list of life changing stories is long. Sixty-thousand more children have been covered as a result of I-155 and more than half of Montana kids now get their health coverage through HMK. These healthier kids learn better in school and reduce infectious illnesses — which makes our schools safer and more productive for everyone. And nearly $700 million in federal funds has been drawn into our local economies.
HMK also helped pave the way for “Medicaid expansion” by nearly completing the children’s part of the expansion while showing providers, patients and lawmakers the value of this coverage to our families and communities.
So, as folks up at the Capitol grapple with the finer points of renewing Montana’s health care expansion, it is time to raise our hands and voices again to remind them of what we did and why we did it. Join us, if you can, in the old Supreme Court Chambers of the Montana Capitol, April 4, 2019, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our baby — Healthy Montana Kids.
Former State Auditor John Morrison wrote Initiative 155 and led the campaign to pass it. A founder of Healthy Montana Kids, Insure Montana and the Montana Health CO-OP, Morrison is now a trial attorney in Helena.
Mayor needs to stick around and be impetus for change
Mayor Collins, please don’t run for the governorship or U.S. representative … yet. We really need you in Helena.
There is so much work to be done and we are counting on you to be the impetus for change. Your creative thinking, leadership, working hand in hand with the city commission, and your connection with we citizens are invaluable. I hope you will stick around for a few more terms so we can update our city and bring us into the 21st century.
BTW, great work on snow plowing!