From all appearances, it seems as though the state’s monopolistic power company has a Manchurian Candidate in the legislature. Is there a quid pro quo involved?
Senate Bill 379, sponsored by Steve Fitzpatrick (R-SD10), passed its third reading and was transmitted to the House. There is a good chance it will pass. That’s unfortunate for Montana’s rate-payers, who will be straddled with the expense of acquiring, operating, or renovating coal-fired power plants. Current arrangements with Northwest Energy don’t mandate that rate-payers will be on the financial hook for the whole of their investments, but SB379 will significantly put them at a much higher level of risk. While keeping Colstrip’s power facility alive, or re-firing up the Lewis & Clark station in Sidney, are certainly noble goals (and ones that conservatives should support), there’s little doubt that SB379 serves as a boondoggle for Northwest Energy.
Montana’s Public Service Commissioners, elected in five districts across the state, serve the purpose of protecting taxpayers and rate-payers to ensure their interests are represented. It’s notable that all five Public Service Commissioners opposed SB379 on behalf of their constituents, at least as it was presented without amendments. All five Public Service Commissioners happen to be Republicans, and at least two of those five – Randy Pinocci and Jennifer Fielder – are what some might call “hard core Republicans,” known for their conservative principles.
According to the PSC, “…if Unit 4 of Colstrip were to shut down in 2027 as has been forecasted, NorthWestern would be permitted to recover $267 million in undepreciated value and remediation costs from its customers. Based on current customer counts, that would leave each NorthWestern ratepayer on the hook for $721 in stranded costs.”
But joining the PSC in opposition to the bill also include Democrats, who largely opposed it on environmental grounds which, to be honest, conservatives could not care less about. However, not all Democrats opposed the bill on these grounds. Some rightly spotted the corruption. Former governor, Brian Schweitzer, opposed the bill in an op-ed published at the re-branded Montana Post (now, “Montana Times”).
SB 379 would have Montana electric ratepayers take all the risk to pay for an aging power plant with no guarantee that the plant would ever produce electricity for their home or business. SB 379 would put hundreds of millions of dollars in the pockets of the same South Dakota company by taking the money from the pockets of Montana families and businesses.
The rest of Schweitzer’s op-ed was full of bizarre comparisons, trying to capitalize on what he perceives to be Montana’s latent xenophobia, and comparing Republicans to Vladimir Putin and Russian Communists. That insanity aside, his point was astute. SB379 absolutely will put hundreds of millions of dollars in the pocket of a power company and make ratepayers take the risk with no promise that power would be provided to them.
Again, saving coal plants is noble and good. But without necessary amendments to SB379, Northwest Energy has everything to win and ratepayers have everything to lose. It’s a bad bill for taxpayers, so how and why was this bill written?
Steve Doherty a former legislator from Lolo, pointed out in his testimony that SB379 affects and benefits only one company, which is Northwest Energy. Although the language is vague in the bill, it’s designed to benefit one entity, which as Doherty pointed out, “That’s the definition of special legislation, and special legislation is outlawed by the Montana constitution.”
Doherty is correct. Fitzpatrick’s SB379 only affects and benefits one company, and that’s unconstitutional. That’s what Article V, Section 12 says, “The legislature shall not pass a special or local act when a general act is, or can be made, applicable.”
So why is that Sen. Fitzpatrick would propose legislation that only benefits one company? And why does his bill profit that company and punish rate-payers? And why is someone who is popularly elected doing what is wrong by the taxpayers and beneficial to Northwest Energy? Is Fitzpatrick a lobbyist for Northwest Energy?
No, but his dad is. Or, was, as the case may be. John Fitzpatrick, the father of Steve Fitzpatrick, was the lead lobbyist for Northwest Energy for many years. His job title, before retiring in 2016, was “Government Affairs Director.” Reportedly, he was paid in excess of two-hundred-thousand dollars per year to push legislation and public policies that would benefit Northwest Energy.
Fitzpatrick also regularly got involved in matters not immediately impacting Northwest Energy, whenever the organization saw fit to employ his services, such as when he opposed gun-rights bills on behalf of the energy company.
That Fitzpatrick is sponsoring SB379, which penalizes ratepayers and benefits Northwest Energy, and that his father was the longtime chief lobbyist for Northwest Energy, is not evidence in and of itself that Fitzpatrick is a bought-and-paid Northwest Energy asset.
However, what if it could be demonstrated that Northwest Energy wrote SB379? Can we then demonstrate collusion between this utility monopoly and Sen. Fitzpatrick? Yes, probably so. And that’s what was admitted to by Fitzpatrick.
In the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee on March 30, an opponent to SB379 alleged that Northwest Energy wrote the bill (watch the video here, at the 16:58.00 mark). Fitzpatrick previously conceded the point, as reported in a March 26 article in the DailyInterlake (originally published in the Montana Free Press), and admitted that the bill was written, “primarily by Northwest Energy” (watch the video here).
Meanwhile, Northwest Energy’s new “Government Affairs Director” – Fitzpatrick Sr’s replacement – admitted that “the concepts [in the bill] comes from us.”
Should we pretend that Sen. Fitzpatrick working in tandem with his father’s replacement as head Northwest Energy lobbyist is only coincidental? Surely not.
The troublesome connection between Northwest Energy and the Montana state government is flagrant and obvious. Amazingly, Robert “Bob” Rowe – now president of Northwest Energy – served as a Public Service Commissioner in the Democratic Party for 12 years, retiring in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he took the top spot at Northwest Energy, which previously he had (ostensibly) regulated.
That an elected official whose job it was to regulate Northwest Energy would then take the top-spot at the helm of Northwest Energy reeks of implicit corruption. Clearly, the energy company would not have hired a man who had legitimately been checking their power and standing up to them on behalf of the ratepayers who elected him. If a quid pro quo existed, and if it could be proven, Bob Rowe would be in prison for corruption.
Proving that Northwest Energy’s top-spot was doled out to pay off Bob Rowe for turning a blind eye to their abuse of the ratepayers for 12 years is easier said than done. Nonetheless, it appears obvious when looking at the big picture. Was his hire to the high-paying position at the utility giant just coincidental? That’s not likely. It seems to be government corruption at high levels.
Sources have reported to the Montana Daily Gazette that Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick is vying for his father’s former job at Northwest Energy, as the head of their Government Affairs Division lobbying arm. This is the reason, they argue, for his hell-bent ambition to serve up SB379 as a trophy offering to what will likely be his new employer when he is done at the capitol.
Does a quid pro quo exist, between Fitzpatrick and Northwest Energy? Have they already offered him a lobbying position, perhaps as pay to get SB379 passed?
Whether or not the rumors are true, any reasonable onlooker would note the entanglements between the Fitzpatrick family and Northwest Energy and admit that they are a horrific conflict of interests. Of 50 senators and 100 representatives in the legislature, why was Fitzpatrick chosen to carry this bill? The answer likely lies in the millions of dollars paid to the Fitzpatrick family by Northwest Energy over the years.
Hopefully, Montana’s coal-powered plants can be saved. And perhaps, amendments could make SB379 less atrocious. But despite that noble ambition, Montana is not well-served by cronyism, kickbacks, and greased palms. Neither is it served by lobbyists masquerading as senators.
The current controversy, with Northwest Energy demonstrably writing and promoting self-serving regulation that hurts ratepayers, the important function of the Montana Public Service Commission is underscored and affirmed. Thankfully, all five of Montana’s Public Service Commissioners have done their job, opposing SB379 and sticking up for their constituents. The power of Northwest Energy can only be matched by an independent elected body like the PSC.
Ultimately, SB379 removes the “public” from the “Public Service Commission” and legislates into law the profit of an energy monopoly. That’s not good for Montanans, and neither is the corruption or likely quæ pro quibus that make it happen.
Should Fitzpatrick take his father’s old job at Northwest Energy when he’s done in the state senate, we know our answer as to whether or not a kickback was in the works.