Senator Theresa Manzella (R-SD44) has introduced SB382, which would repeal an illegal tax hiked on utility rate payers in the last legislative session. The hike, passed as HB411 in 2019, was favored by left-leaning legislators who desired to fund a Game & Fish pet project guised as a utility rate fee without appearing as though they raised taxes.
In effect, that’s what HB411 did. It is a tax, wrongly characterized as a utility rate fee. The problem, legally, is that this punitive tax is paid by utility rate payers – particularly those doing business with Northwest Energy – but not upon the broader tax base. Not only is the tax punitive and unfair, but deceitful.
Opposing HB411 strongly at the time was then-new Public Service Commissioner, Randy Pinocci, who spoke with Montana Daily Gazette publisher, Jordan Hall, then a field reporter for the Richland County Round Up Newspaper.
Pinocci told Hall, “I thought I would also educate the public on some things that happened in the legislative session. One of the more shocking things, House Bill 411, is adding over a million dollars to Northwest Energy rate-payers to cover protection from the zebra mussel which has nothing to do with energy and should be paid for from the general fund. Does this mean that any time they need tax money they’ll add it to the electric bill?”
The Public Service Commissioner went on to explain that HB 411 was designed to fund government bureaucratic growth, using environmental concerns to do so. According to proponents of HB411, the ominous ‘zebra mussel’ is an aquatic invasive species that needs eradicated. Although hydroelectric facilities don’t cause the spread of such species, some speculate on thin scientific grounds that such facilities could theoretically be affected by them. Preventative measures designed to keep the hydroelectric facilities free of the zebra mussel would affect a relatively small amount of energy customers, but HB411 is designed to spread that cost out.
Pinocci said, “They’re trying to find a way to get people to pay taxes through their energy bill and then say, ‘we didn’t increase taxes.’ No, you just tagged it onto the energy bill! This can’t even be legal.”
Manzella’s bill, SB382, seeks to over-turn that illegal tax. The shortened title for her bill is, “AN ACT REPEALING AQUATIC INVASIVE SPECIES FEES FOR HYDROELECTRIC FACILITIES” and will do right by the rate-payer by ensuring that secret taxes aren’t passed along to citizens on their utility bill.
Protecting the rate-payer is the precise task of the Montana Public Service Commission, and Pinocci – more so than all the other commissioners – stands out at uniquely devoted to that task.
Pinocci told the Montana Daily Gazette, “Listen, I just want to do the job the voters elected me to do. This is a tax squeaked through on utility bills. When people pay their utility bill, they expect to pay for their utilities, not bureaucratic pet projects. That’s what taxes are for. If the legislature wants to dump environmental taxes on people, do it the right way, call it a tax, and see if the voters will tolerate it.”