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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Initiative threatens Avista dam

More than half of Avista Corp.’s power-generating resources could be at risk if a proposed initiative makes it onto Montana’s November ballot.

Initiative I-150, the Montana Energy Security Act, was certified for signature-gathering last Friday by the Montana Secretary of State’s Office. It would create a five-member public power board appointed by the governor. The board would have the right to use revenue bonds to purchase and operate any power-generation, transmission or distribution resource in Montana.

Avista’s largest generation resource, at a capacity of about 466 megawatts, is the Noxon Rapids Dam on the Clark Fork River in western Montana. Avista also owns about 210 megawatts of the output of a coal-fired generation plant in Colstrip, Mont. One megawatt of power is enough for about 650 homes.

The initiative’s author, state Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, said the state’s 1997 deregulation experiment has resulted in skyrocketing rates and out-of-state companies owning all of Montana’s power-generation and transmission resources.

South Dakota-based NorthWestern Corp., whose utility arm, NorthWestern Energy, is the largest service provider in Montana, is in bankruptcy and undergoing reorganization. NorthWestern Energy, which bought the former Montana Power system in 2002, provides service to nearly 300,000 electric customers and about 160,000 natural gas customers. PPL Montana, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp., owns the majority of the state’s power generation.

“It’s just a mess here, and people are dying to figure out what to do,” Toole said. “We simply can’t continue to put up with the way we’re being treated by these utilities. We have a bunch of out-of-state corporations making all of the decisions. Who’s going to benefit, based on their shareholders’ bottom lines?”

Avista Corp., which has owned Noxon Rapids since the 1950s, is not the intended target of the new initiative, but Toole said the power generated there primarily benefits people outside the state. Montana’s constitution calls for waters within the state to be used for the benefit of state residents.

Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof said Montana does benefit from Avista’s presence, with more than $6 million in yearly property taxes, recreational opportunities and jobs. Imhof said the initiative sends a message he doesn’t believe most Montanans support.

“The idea that a private business could invest its money and then have it taken away is a terrible signal, and I think a lot of Montanans agree with that,” Imhof said.

But the company is taking the measure seriously. This week, Avista joined with NorthWestern Energy and PPL Montana to survey Montana voters’ feelings about the initiative. Avista declined to release the results.

“We’ll continue to work closely with people in Montana,” said Tom Paine, Avista’s director of governmental relations. “Generally, we’ve found Montanans to be fair people. We think this initiative is not the product of a majority of Montanans, it’s the product of a few.”

This is the second initiative Toole has penned that takes aim at control of the state’s energy-generating resources. A 2002 initiative that focused solely on dams was defeated by 68 percent of voters following a $2 million campaign against it by PPL Montana and Avista.

This year, Toole is up for re-election and said he doesn’t have the time to lead the charge. Though an anonymous businessman in Great Falls donated $25,000 to the signature-gathering campaign, Toole said he doesn’t know whether the signatures can be collected in time. If not, he said, he’ll bring the measure forward through the legislative process.

Signature gatherers have until June 18 to collect the 20,510 signatures necessary to qualify the measure for the ballot. State law also requires that 5 percent of the voters in each of one-half the counties in Montana sign the petition for it to be valid. If the measure qualifies for the ballot, a simply majority would make it law.

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