Well, I saw the Montana GOP tweet out this image:
Front and center there is Fred Thomas. To the Montana GOP, this man is a hero.
To regular working Montanans like you and I, however, Fred Thomas just represents less money in our pocket, and more money in the power company’s pocket.
That’s right, you might remember that Fred Thomas carried the Montana power deregulation bill way back in 1997.
I believe Fred Thomas is 60-years-old now, and he’s been living in the Hamilton/Stevensville area his whole life.
The guy’s been on just about every elected board of office there is, from school board to the top of the legislature.
Thomas began serving in the legislature in 1985, got out in 1992, took a 5-year break until getting back in in 1997, and then he got out again in 2004 before getting in again in 2012. In 1992 he even ran for attorney general.
Thomas’s grandpa was in the legislature back in the 1940s. He called Mike Mansfield a commy. So the guy has some history, and I’d like to think he has some smarts.
But gosh darn, when we dig into the details we find that Fred Thomas is one of the most ignorant members of the Montana Legislature.
His ideas have been disastrous for Montanans.
Back on March 8, 1997, no mention was made in the Montana press about the introduction of SB 390, the deregulation bill that Fred Thomas was putting forth.
Three days later the Missoulian quoted Thomas as saying the bill represented a “balanced, logical transition to customer choice of a competitive power supply.”
A few days after that the Helena IR editorial board wrote that deregulation was “vital to protect consumers in the coming years.”
At the time, Montanans paid 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which represented one of the lowest rates in the nation.
Three years later Montanans paid 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour. The average power bill went from $18.75 to $50.25.
By 2001, those in the legislature knew they’d made a horrible mistake. The legislature figured that 632 jobs had been lost because of deregulation already. More jobs losses would follow.
The legislature did nothing, and the problem was only going to get worse. Montana Power closed up shop in March 2002, becoming Touch America. Goldman Sachs was hired to help sell the $1.5 billion in assets they had. As Montana Power it’d been worth $1.2 billion; as Touch America it was worth $6.2 billion. Wall Street couldn’t stop drooling.
Then the dot-com bubble burst, the Bush recession hit, and telecom wasn’t as hot as it once seemed to be.
In July 2003 Touch America filed for bankruptcy. They laid off 216 workers, 100 of whom lived in Montana. The top five executives of the company got $1 million severance packages before they’d left Montana Power, however. Bob Gannon alone was given $3.6 million in shares.
Touch America was selling for 57 cents a share in March 2003, down from the $65 it’d been in March 2000.
When the 2003 Legislature came to Helena, they tried to reverse the deregulation decisions of 1997 by doing some kind of rural electric co-op to administer electricity and buy back the state’s gas generating plants. Fred Thomas slammed this idea, despite overwhelming evidence that his deregulation bill had decimated the state’s energy economy.
“Between the Democrats’ alliance with radical environmental protesters and lack of solutions up to this point, I just can’t help but think this so-called plan is anything more than a lifeless campaign stunt,” he said.
Fred Thomas is not only ignorant, he’s dangerously hard-headed. When confronted with the damages he’s caused, he becomes defensive and blames his usual scapegoats.
Now we have SB 331, which wants to protect Colstrip but will most likely result in its closure and a $40 million bill for Montanans that pay a power bill.
If you figure that the company has 718,000 customers in Montana, then each would have to pay $55 extra on their bills so that Northwestern can close Colstrip down without any cost to itself.
That’s the idea behind SB 331 - to take away the regulating power of the PSC and give it to the out-of-state owners of Northwestern Energy.
Even Travis Kavulla, a former chairman of the PSC, says this is so:
“If SB 331 becomes law, it would permanently harm Montana’s energy consumers, all because the Montana legislature made yet another big and stupid decision in a hurry.”
That other “big and stupid decision” he’s referring to is 1997's deregulation.
Tom Richmond is sponsoring SB 331 to force Montana ratepayers to bail out Northwestern Energy to the tune of $40 million.
Duane Aukney of Colstrip has become an unwitting sucker here. His stance on this will actually result in the closure of his community’s coal plants sooner than expected. His last years will be spent regretting what happened.
You and I will pay a lot more on our power bills for a few months until Northwestern makes their $40 million off our backs.
Those in the legislature that voted for this will act like Thomas did in 2003 - they’ll ignore the detrimental costs to Montana while patting themselves on the back for a job well done. If confronted with the damages they wrought, they'll just blame "radical environmental protesters."
And make no mistake about it - those legislators did do a good job...just not for the people they represent. They did a good job for the Wall Street hucksters that they did a good job for back in 1997.
Fred Thomas was there holding their hand and cheerleading for them then; he’s still doing the same today.