By Mike Dennison, KTVH

HELENA — At a marathon hearing Wednesday evening, the bill meant to encourage NorthWestern Energy to acquire a larger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant came under withering criticism, as a “corporate bailout” that could fleece the company’s ratepayers.

Critics, including two public service commissioners, blasted Senate Bill 379 as a measure that would wipe out 100 years of rate-making policy for one asset – Colstrip – and dictate, in law, how NorthWestern gets to charge customers for its cost.

“Essentially what this bill does is say, `Hey, Legislature – we don’t want to go to the (Public Service Commission) and have this great deal approved by the commission,’” said Public Service Commissioner James Brown, R-Dillon. “No, it’s such a great deal that the Legislature needs to set the terms of the purchase.”

But nearly two-dozen witnesses – many from Colstrip, or with unions representing Colstrip workers – lined up to defend the bill and the continuing operation of the Colstrip plant in southeast Montana. They said consumers need the reliable and affordable power that the plant produces.

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