Rebuilding Montana’s democracy after an earthquake of extremism

May 22, 2023 4:00 am

An aerial view of a natural gas fired electrical generation station being built near the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana. (Photo by Ed Saunders, used with permission).

As we survey the landscape of our democracy after Montana’s 68th legislative session, two things are clear: extremists are running the show, and a few corporations dictate their marching orders.

Bill after dangerous bill passed through both legislative chambers despite Montanans lining up by the dozens to testify against them and only a few paid lobbyists speaking in support. This is a wake-up call. Extremist politicians are treating “We the People” as irrelevant distractions and, sometimes, even with disdain. 

Meeting our challenges depends on respectful listening and finding common ground. Politicians who deny the voices of the majority, all the while passing laws that raid our pocketbooks, pollute our communities, and dismantle our rights, are corroding democracy. Falling in line after our voices have been ignored won’t happen; rigid obedience isn’t in our DNA. As responsible Montanans begin to repair this damage, it’s important to take stock of what just happened. Here are just a few disturbing examples. 

Senate Bill 228, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, outlaws local governments from making community-based energy decisions. The bill bans municipalities from creating protections against the use of petroleum-derived fuels including the tools, transportation, or equipment involved. This “Big Brother knows best” authoritarianism perfectly serves Montana’s two monopoly energy corporations, but not us. Communities could be forced to live with dangerous industrial infrastructure next to parks, schools and homes. 

Another pair of bills undermines the rights of ranchers and landowners in coal country. House Bill 576, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, rewrites permitting laws for coal development using murky terms about land and water damage that will make it hard for landowners to hold coal companies accountable when property is harmed. Despite widespread land and water degradation near coal development, this law shields companies from liability, while landowners are forced into courtrooms as their last resort. This is where the second bill comes into play. 

Senate Bill 392, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, compels individuals to pay the legal bills of coal corporations if a judge rules on behalf of a company in a dispute. This financial intimidation will prevent citizens from seeking justice. Coal corporations will cheer while everyday Montanans find themselves under the coal car. 

Senate Bill 557, sponsored by Sen. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, is another “pay to play” bill requiring Montanans to pony up cash for expensive lawsuits and other fees to challenge government decisions using our bedrock conservation law, the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

Noland stated that his bill was inspired by his sympathy for an industrial gold mine right outside Yellowstone National Park that was rejected after a MEPA challenge. It’s time to reclaim our democratic processes when legislators proudly declare that keeping one corporation’s vaults stocked with gold is more important than citizens’ rights or protecting one of Montana’s most celebrated natural treasures. 

House Bill 971, sponsored by Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, was written to bail out NorthWestern Energy after a recent legal ruling.  A Montana judge halted construction of the corporation’s methane-fired power plant in Laurel until the state can analyze the plant’s climate pollution. Instead of waiting for that important data, the bill bans state analysis of carbon pollution from environmental reviews altogether. It’s worth noting that NorthWestern’s $280 million plant, if built, will become a Major Source of Hazardous Air Pollutants, emitting tons of carcinogenic pollution each year. But health and safety protections don’t concern these fringe politicians when corporations demand guaranteed profits. 

Let’s roll up our sleeves and strengthen the muscles of our democracy. We can commit ourselves to the inclusive power of engaged common people – our friends, our neighbors, “We the People.” 

Joanie Kresich is a Livingston resident and the Board Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture group.

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