Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has vetoed almost as many bills this spring as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer did after the 2011 state Legislature. The last count I saw was 71 to 78.
Schweitzer was not circumspect about this; for some of the bills he heated up a branding iron, called the press, and burned VETO after VETO into a wooden board.
Bullock did his work with less panache, but he angered almost as many Republican legislators as his predecessor. And he may have disappointed a few more of his fellow Democrats than Schweitzer managed to do.
Most of Bullock’s vetoes focused on maintaining his goal of a $300 million budget surplus by mid-2015 (Republicans thought $180 million would be sufficient), so he cut some “spendy” bills. A few of these were backed by his fellow Democrats (although little Democratic-initiated legislation made it out of the Republican-dominated House and Senate); many more vetoed bills were backed by Republicans and were either spendy or offered tax breaks that were, in the governor’s opinion, excessive.
In regard to maintaining that $300 million surplus, Bullock said that he looked out the window of the Capitol and could see no snowpack in the mountains. He said it was prudent to save money for emergencies, such as fighting forest and range fires, which are likely to strike (in fact, they’re already happening) should our weather stay dry and hot.
At least one of Bullock’s vetoes, however, could be considered spendy itself, in that it could cost the state a bit of income. This was Senate Bill 282.
Sponsored by Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, who chaired the Senate Taxation Committee, SB 282 would have repealed income tax credits for people investing in energy conservation or in renewable energy systems – along with credits and deductions for other things including recycling.
Ben Brouwer of Helena lobbied part-time during the 2013 legislative session on behalf of both AERO, Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization, an educational and advocacy group formed in 1974, and MREA, the Montana Renewable Energy Association, born several years ago with members who are mostly business people. Brouwer lobbied for legislation those groups considered progressive, but largely it failed, so he ended up spending more time working against measures like SB 282, which he called “poor tax policy and bad energy policy.”
As Brouwer told members of both AERO and MREA, “Under the guise of tax code simplification, this bill strips incentives for investments in energy efficiency and decentralized renewable energy production as well as credits for recycling and biodiesel production.”
Thousands of Montana taxpayers – Brouwer’s research indicated “up to 23,000” – reduce their up-front costs each year by insulating, installing energy efficient windows, lighting, boilers and more, and also by establishing home power systems powered by the sun or other renewable sources.
This cuts energy bills and helps protect people from rising energy prices. This is good for anyone, but for low-income families or elderly people on fixed incomes it is especially important.
Two other energy-related vetoes
Ben Brouwer was also happy that Gov. Bullock vetoed two other pieces of legislation, although he said other people such as Jeff Fox of Renewable Northwest and Clayton Elliott of Northern Plains Resource Council did the heavy lifting on these bills.
One was House Bill 188, sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, which would have drastically lowered the allowable capacity limits for independently owned renewable energy systems — called “qualifying facilities” or QF’s.
These QF’s, now largely wind or solar with some small hydropower systems - are guaranteed a standard contract to supply power to an electric utility based on “avoided cost” — the amount the utility would have had to pay to generate itself or obtain from other sources.
The other veto that made Brouwer, AERO and MREA happy was Senate Bill 125, sponsored by Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup. This bill would have allowed the Public Service Commission not to charge a penalty when a utility fails to comply with the Community Renewable Energy Projects provision of Montana’s “renewable energy standard” law.
This law, passed in 2005, requires utilities to generate or buy a certain amount of their electricity from solar, wind or other renewable sources, and this community provision requires that a certain amount of that power come not from large centralized facilities but from decentralized sites.
“Saving energy and producing more of our energy close to home,” said Brouwer, “should be a priority of Montana’s energy and tax policies” – and he thanked the governor for supporting that vision.