Vote-Trading for Big Coal

The closing weeks of Montana’s legislative sessions are always perilous. Legislators are worn out from more than three months of hearings, floor debates, and living on chicken wings and bacon-wrapped appetizers at nightly “receptions.” To say their judgment is clouded would be a vast understatement. But what’s going on in the Montana Senate right now cannot be excused due to exhaustion and must fall fully on Senate President Scott Sales and Majority Leader Fred Thomas, who allowed Republican senators to engage in open vote trading on the “save Colstrip” bill.

There is no worse form of lawmaking than vote trading. Bills should be judged on their merits, but vote trading means, in context to the Colstrip bill, “if you don’t vote for my bill I’ll vote against yours.”

That’s exactly what happened late last week when five Republican senators who had signed on as co-sponsors of the Medicaid expansion bill voted against the measure on the Senate floor, resulting in a 25-25 tie. Since it takes a majority to approve a bill, the tie vote means the Medicaid expansion measure is, for the time being, stuck in the Senate as the clock ticks down to session’s end.

Rather astoundingly, Sen. Tom Richmond, the sponsor of the Colstrip bill and co-sponsor of the Medicaid expansion bill, openly admitted to reporters that: “We have some issues with one of my bills and we’ll see what that’s going to be a little later on.” In plain language, Richmond is blatantly saying unless the Colstrip bill gets the votes to pass in the House, he and the other four “save Colstrip” Republican senators won’t vote to pass the Medicaid expansion bill they all co-sponsored.

One can very credibly ask “what does Colstrip have to do with Medicaid expansion?” The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing. Tens of thousands of Montanans would lose their current Medicaid health coverage if the measure doesn’t pass, since the 2017 Medicaid bill sunsets this year. Continuing to operate Colstrip, on the other hand, means all Montanans will be harmed by the increasing impacts of climate change caused by the massive output of greenhouse gases the coal plant generates. Medicaid expansion gives us a healthier population and Colstrip does just the opposite.

The Colstrip bill is primarily a huge giveaway to NorthWestern Energy while shoveling future costs for closing and remediating the outdated and polluting coal plants onto 370,000 of the utility’s customers. Given that the power from Colstrip already costs considerably more than existing hydroelectric, solar, wind and natural gas-generated power, Montanans are getting less than nothing in the deal. Moreover, the measure removes Public Service Commission oversight of what NorthWestern can charge customers in the future. This essentially neuters the functions of both the commission and the constitutionally mandated Consumer Council in their duty to protect Montanans from predatory monopoly price gouging.

Gov. Steve Bullock can be chastised for being distracted by his presidential ambitions during a legislative session. But on the vote-trading issue, Bullock is right. “Republican senators should be ashamed,” he said. “The 96,000 Montanans who rely on Medicaid expansion don’t have votes to trade. The only choice they have is whether they get the health care they need or whether they can put food on the table for their families.”

Since the Republican Senate “leadership” seems incapable of ensuring ethical legislative conduct by their members, Bullock can stop the Colstrip vote-trading debacle by announcing he will veto the bill if it passes. Right now would be the perfect time to do just that.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.