The Montana Legislature revisited the contentious issue of “eminent domain” Tuesday, as the state Senate voted to repeal a two-year-old law that gives private power-line developers the authority to condemn property to build the line.
“This is the time for the Montana Legislature to finally get it right, and protect private property owners in rural areas from private developers,” said Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, the sponsor of the repeal measure, Senate Bill 180.
The Senate voted 28-22 for Barrett’s bill, which faces a final vote Wednesday before advancing to the House.
Lawmakers also endorsed a pair of other bills giving landowners more of an edge when negotiating payment for their property that is condemned through eminent domain, for construction of power lines or other “public uses.”
Eminent domain is the legal term for the condemnation power exercised by developers of power lines, railroads, roads and pipelines. If they can’t negotiate passage through someone’s property, they file in court to condemn land along the route and set the payment.
Two years ago, the Legislature passed a controversial bill that said power-line developers who had state approval of their route can use eminent domain to condemn property.
The law was in response to state court decision that had thrown in doubt the condemnation authority of the Canadian-owned Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) in north-central Montana. Utilities and other power-line developers said the decision upset decades of legal precedent, and that the law merely restored their rights.
Supporters of Barrett’s bill, however, argued Tuesday that the law gave unprecedented power to private companies to run over landowners, and should be repealed.
“A private, for-profit, foreign corporation building a power line is not a public use or a public benefit,” said Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls. “I’m just passionate about sticking up for the little guy. … It’s David versus Goliath, and for the umpteenth time, I’m going to be on David’s side.”
Opponents of the bill argued that changing the law two years after enacting it sends a bad message to energy developers who want to build projects in Montana.
“Here we are, going to change the rules again, in mid-stream,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. “How do you think people are going to look at Montana and invest in Montana when the rules change every two years?”
Most Republicans, however, supported the measure, saying it stands up for property rights.
“People were so desperate for a few construction jobs that they were willing to throw Montanans under the bus,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, referring to the MATL power line. “What made this country great? Protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens.”
Twenty-three Senate Republicans and five Democrats supported SB180, while six Republicans and 16 Democrats opposed it.
The Senate also endorsed SB288 from Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, setting out various steps that must be followed before property can be condemned through eminent domain.
The House voted 93-6 for House Bill 417, which would require developers who file to condemn property to offer compensation at least as high as the final offer they made before going to court over the issue. Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend is the sponsor.