‘Environmental groups’ won’t be subject to Department of Justice investigations

Mercer: ‘We need to strike it for process reasons’

By: - April 27, 2021 5:24 pm

Detail of the stained glass at the Montana state capitol in Helena. The capitol was completed in 1899 and then an addition was completed in 1911. (By Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan.)

Environmental groups won’t be the subject of a Montana Department of Justice investigation anymore, at least in the most recent version of House Bill 693.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, made a bid Tuesday to ax an amendment that was added to the bill calling on the Attorney General to investigate the lobbying activities and tax status of environmental groups in the state.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, had pitched the amendment and said he aimed it squarely at environmental organizations because they are trying to stop coal.

“This one is aimed toward environmentalist organizations,” Ankney said earlier. “There isn’t a trade organization that is trying to shut down coal mining.”

The House had passed an earlier version of the bill, but without the amendment from Ankney. The bill generally deals with numerous criminal justice issues, such as the timely transfer of county defendants into state custody, and it calls on the Department of Corrections to report data and updates on items of interest to an interim legislative committee.

At the conference committee Tuesday, though, Mercer said the legislators around the table spent a lot of time working through the items in the bill. But he said the provisions in the amendment from Ankney weren’t ever considered, and regardless of their merits, members of the public didn’t have an opportunity to comment on them, and neither did people who would be directly affected by it.

“I just think we need to strike it for process reasons without even getting into a discussion about substance,” Mercer said.

The committee agreed on a voice vote, so HB693 moves forward without the call to investigate environmental groups. Sen. Ellie Boldman earlier noted that environmental groups had worked to protect people in Libby from asbestos and are working today to protect clean air and water in Montana: “This is really something out of the McCarthy era.”

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

Ankney is passionate about Colstrip and the coal fired electricity plant there. His amendment to HB693 came on the heels of a vote in the House energy committee to table a controversial bill, Senate Bill 379, that would have allowed NorthWestern Energy to purchase more of the Colstrip plants but without standard setting of terms by the Montana Public Service Commission.

The Colstrip senator proposed the investigation of environmental groups, which failed. He also revived the measure to help NorthWestern Energy in the form of an amendment to House Bill 695, which is still pending in the Montana Legislature.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.