Montana Politics Week In Review
NorthWestern Energy Dam Buyback
Montana's Public Service Commission (PSC) held hearings all week to decide if NorthWestern Energy should be able to purchase 12 hydroelectric dams and pass on the $870 million cost to its ratepayers. Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers writes "the purchase would increase NorthWestern’s homeowner electric rates by about 6.5 percent, making them nearly the highest of any major electric utility in the region."
Economist John Wilson testified for the Montana Consumer Counsel, a state office that advocates for consumers at the PSC. Wilson said the purchase as proposed is not good for consumers because it will lead to higher rates for customers while guaranteeing a profit for NorthWestern Energy. Wilson suggested NorthWestern should shoulder a larger portion of the costs. “There has to be some compromise, some give, so that the only beneficiary here is not the hedge funds and the institutional investors that own 93 percent of NorthWestern’s common stock.”
NorthWestern Energy officials have said the plan is a chance to “put the failed experiment of utility deregulation behind us,” and that customers would be happy to pay higher rates in the short-term in return for stable rates in the long-term. According to Dennison "NorthWestern officials also say the $900 million price is not negotiable, and if the PSC imposes conditions that don’t allow the company to recover most or all of those costs in rates, NorthWestern will walk away from the deal." NorthWestern CEO Bob Rowe told the PSC “If we can’t determine that the price is in the public interest, I don’t know what we do. We have tried to put together something that really does make sense. If the commission can’t get to the point that $870 million (should be approved) to dedicate these assets to the state of Montana for perpetuity, then I’m really sorry.”
Recent financial disclosure reports required of federal candidates and members of Congress show that Rep. Steve Daines is Montana's wealthiest representative with personal assets worth between $8.9 and $32.7 million. Sen. John Walsh's listed personal assets worth between $66,000 to $165,000.
House candidate Ryan Zinke reported assets in the range of $1.1 million to $2.5 million, while his challenger John Lewis listed assets work $66,000 to $165,000.
Sen. Jon Tester's assets ranged from $1.1 million to $2.2 million.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox has asked a federal court to uphold Montana's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Fox said the the ban is neither unconstitutional nor discriminatory. State attorneys wrote that "men and women, regardless of sexual orientation or preference, are treated the same. Neither men nor women can marry persons of the same gender," and "Montana’s recognition of marriage as between one man and one woman does not constitute or impose an unconstitutional stigma or second-class citizenship on persons in same-sex relationship."
Same-sex marriage bans are being debated in the courts across the country. The bans have been overturned in 12 states. This week, judges in Okalahoma and Florida have overturned same-sex marriage bans. Nineteen states have made same-sex marriage legal.
Affordable Care Act
The State Auditor's office released estimates claiming that 30,000 Montanans have gotten new health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, reducing Montana's uninsured rate from 20% to 16.9%.
According to the Auditor's report:
"There was an increase of 26,429 in the individual insurance market, a term that refers to families or individuals buying insurance for themselves in the open insurance market. The Montana Medicaid program saw an increase of another 8,739. Montana saw a decrease of about 5,150 insureds in the small group market, which is insurance purchased by small employers for their employees. Most of those people are believed to have migrated to the individual market, rather than slipped into the population of the insured.
The total net gain of insured Montanans is estimated at 30,018, although the study cautions that insurance is complicated and it is impossible to peg with certainty the precise number of insured Montanans at any point in time."