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Bill on Colstrip purchase passes first vote in Montana House

HELENA- A bill intended to encourage NorthWestern Energy to buy a larger interest in the Colstrip 4 power plant passed a preliminary vote in the Montana House Monday.

Lawmakers endorsed Senate Bill 331 on a 62-38 vote.

Proponents say SB 331 will help extend the plant’s life. The bill originally guaranteed that NorthWestern, Montana’s largest electric utility, could charge its customers up to $75 million over 10 years for any new capital expenditures at the Colstrip plant.

Supporters said Monday the bill had been amended to address some of the opponents’ main concerns, including giving the Montana Public Service Commission a greater say in approving the costs.

“In committee, we ensured that there was Public Service Commission oversight of costs and purchases,” said Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican from Billings. “That was the number-one concern I’ve heard about for a month or two, so we took care of that.”

Rep. Tom Woods, a Democrat from Bozeman, said he liked some of the changes the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee had made. But he still opposed SB 331, saying he expected those changes would be reversed as the bill moves forward.

“This is going to be stripped out of the bill, along with every other good thing that got amended into the bill,” he said. “I like to call this the ’72 Vega bill, because this is a dangerous vehicle.”

But House Speaker Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, said the House shouldn’t worry about what changes the Senate might want to make.

“Guess what? We have another vote at that,” he said.

SB 331 must pass a final vote in the House on Tuesday. The Senate will then decide whether or not to accept the House’s amendments. If senators reject the amendments, the bill would go to a conference committee.

In the last week, SB 331 had become connected with House Bill 658, the proposal to extend Montana’s Medicaid expansion. Some Republican senators had suggested they would withhold their votes on that bill to see if the Colstrip bill passed. That issue was not brought up during Monday’s debate on SB 331.

Story by Jonathon Ambarian, MTN News

Related: Medicaid expansion, Colstrip bills entwined as Montana Legislature enters final weeks

Related: Labor and biz groups battle consumer advocates, enviros over Colstrip bill

Related: Montana Senate advances bill to aid NorthWestern purchase of Colstrip 4 share

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