The end of the session is nigh, and last week was a veritable roller coaster. We joyously said goodbye to SB 379, only to have it resurrected in HB 695. We were also blindsided by an anti-environmentalist amendment to HB 693, which you can learn more about below.

Rumor has it that the folks at the Capitol are looking to wrap the session up this week, which means we’re likely in the final sprint. Here’s a note of good news to motivate you for the final push: HB 448, the good-turned-bad solar bill, was tabled in conference committee this morning on a 5-1 vote (yay!).

1. HB 693 takes aim at environmental groups

Sen. Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip) brought forth an amendment to HB 693 last week that would divert $250,000 of taxpayer dollars to investigate “environmental groups.” The bill requires the State Attorney General to investigate any and all organizations that work on issues related to the environment.

This legislation raises some serious constitutional red flags. It interferes with basic and fundamental rights that all Montanans enjoy. Sen. Brad Molnar (R-Laurel) agreed, speaking up on the Senate floor and saying that the amendment “embarrassed” him (see full quote in the graphic above).

Nonprofit organizations are already highly regulated and required to be transparent in their financial disclosures – more so than many other types of corporations. For example, nonprofit organizations’ annual IRS reporting form 990s are publicly available.

The amendment fails to define the term “environmental group,” which means that any organization that works on issues related to the environment could be a target of the Attorney General’s investigation. It could include Conservation Districts, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, United Property Owners of Montana, local recycling groups, high school green groups, local gardening clubs, 4-H clubs, hunting and angling groups, land trusts, and more.

There are scores of programs in the state that would benefit greatly from a $250,000 infusion of funding, whether it’s for health care, COVID relief, job creation, economic development, protecting waters from aquatic invasive species, land and wildlife conservation efforts, or more. 

Needless to say, this is a provision that we strongly oppose. Read more about what this new amendment does here.

Action: Share this article, this articlethis article, and this article with your neighborhood environmental groups and people who care about the First Amendment. Contact your House representative and ask them to oppose this provision in HB 693.

2. SB 379, the Billion Dollar Bailout, resurrected in an amendment to HB 695

Just when we defeated SB 379, our friend Sen. Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip) introduced an amendment that pulled elements of SB 379 into HB 695, a completely unrelated bill

The amendment to HB 695 pulls in a concept from SB 379 which would strip the Public Service Commission of the power to protect customers from charges when NorthWestern Energy acts “imprudently.”

Right now, if NorthWestern must buy replacement power because the plant went down as a result of imprudent actions, NorthWestern must pay for these costs. If this bill passes, it removes the PSC’s power to prevent NorthWestern from passing these costs on to customers, even if NorthWestern acts imprudently.Here’s a short video explaining this, or you can click the image of our Communications Director Katy Spence to view the video.

The amended HB 695 passed out of Senate Natural Resources on Friday on a party line vote. 

Action: Contact your Senator and House member and ask them to vote against this amended bill, whether by email or by phone (406-444-4800).

3. Ask Gov. Gianforte to veto SB 358, a bill that endangers the health of our waterways

SB 358 by Senator John Esp (R-Big Timber) would eliminate numeric nutrient standards that are currently established and enforced by the Montana DEQ through administrative rules. This bill will result in more nutrients in our rivers and streams.

High levels of nutrients in water can lead to rampant algal growth. According to the Clark Fork Coalition, “Besides coating our riverbeds with unsightly green slime, mats of algae block sunlight from reaching more beneficial organisms below the river’s surface. Algae also makes it hard to wade and fish and can clog irrigation intakes and canals. To top it off, as algae dies, the decomposition process sucks oxygen out of the water, and has a suffocating effect on trout and bugs.”

From agriculture to ecosystem health to outdoor recreation, this bill is bad for Montana. Read more from the Billings Gazette editorial board.

Action: Call Gov. Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Juras at (406) 444-3111 and ask for a veto on SB 358. Email them both:

Psst: If you’re in the mood to ask Gov. Gianforte to veto bills, here’s a list of more bills you can ask him to veto.

4. Contact Rep. Loge and House Representatives and ask them to oppose HB 188 

Montana’s competing to have the highest electric vehicle registration fees in the country. Let’s tell our representatives that this is NOT a record that Montana wants.

HB 188 by Rep. Denley Loge  (R-Saint Regis) was amended to add $250 onto existing registration fees for vehicles that are electric (and an additional $400 for trucks using electric batteries).

  • Electric vehicles that are 4 years old or newer would have to pay $467 per year to register (compared to $217 for nonelectric vehicles).
  • Electric vehicles between 5-10 years old would have to pay $337 (compared to $87 for nonelectric).
  • Those that are over 11 years old would have to pay $278 (compared to $28 for nonelectric vehicles).

These fees are excessive, punitive, and should be reduced to a reasonable amount.

Action: Contact Rep. Loge by email or phone (406-444-4800) and ask him to either vote no on his bill or to make the registration fee for electric vehicles reasonably reflect the lost gas tax revenue to the state. Contact House representatives using this form on our websiteRead and share op-eds.

5. Sign a letter in support of renewable energy in Montana.

We’re working with Montana Conservation Voters to collect a list of folks who support renewable energy and oppose HB 475, SB 237 and HB 576. Learn more and sign the letter here.

MEIC in the News

A fight is brewing in Montana over legislation that, if passed, would compel the state’s attorney general wide to investigate environmental groups and give them wide latitude to do so. The result could be a protracted legal battle and have a chilling effect on free speech around the transition away from coal and toward renewables.

The fight centers around the town of Colstrip and its state senator. Colstrip, as the name might make you guess, has one big business: coal. The town began as a waypoint to supply railroads with coal, and in the 1970s, the open pit mines that ring it began feeding Colstrip power plant. Satellite images show the scale of the industry, which dwarfs the town’s small grid of streets.

But the heyday of coal has come and gone in the U.S. Coal plants have retired at a rapid clip since the late 2000s, largely due to the glut of cheap natural gas unearthed by fracking and the falling cost of renewable energy. Two of the Colstrip power plant’s boilers were shut down last year as the result of an air pollution lawsuit. According to the Billings Gazette, four of the utilities that buy the power are Washington and Oregon, both states that will ban coal power in the coming years. That puts the future of the plant and its two remaining boilers on very shaky financial ground.

Colstrip’s state senator and amazing-mustache-haver, Duane Ankney, has introduced a slew of bills to help prop up the plant. That includes SB 379, a bill that would help the plant’s fifth owner, NorthWestern Energy, recoup costs from ratepayers if the plant even if it closed. The Gazette reports that those costs would be a staggering $483 million over the next 21 years, based on a Montana Public Service Commission analysis. The bill got tabled in the state House, though. State Rep. Denise Hayman said of “almost 4,000 emails” about the bill were not supportive. This went down on Wednesday.

Read more: Montana Legislator Introduces Bill to Legally Target Environmentalists After Coal Bailout Fails – Brian Kahn, Gizmodo. April 23, 2021

Check out some other news stories from the past week:

Bill by Colstrip Republican directs state attorney general to investigate Montana environmental organizations – Laura Lundquist, Missoula Current. April 24, 2021

GOP lawmakers put brakes on controversial energy bill – Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press, April 22, 2021

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