During a heated Senate floor session on March 29, 11 senators turned against a bill meant to save the Colstrip plant. The move was an act of protest against an unrelated bill that regulates political central committees. The Senate ultimately chose to reconsider the Colstrip bill, and seven GOP senators changed their votes. Credit: Montana Public Affairs Network

HELENA — Two seemingly unrelated bills converged Friday for a combative session on the Senate floor.

The only thread connecting Senate Bill 331 and House Bill 318 is their controversy. The former bill would remove Public Service Commission oversight from an additional 150 megawatts at the Colstrip power plant. The latter bill would reform political central committee rules.

While SB 331 sailed through second reading earlier this week with full Republican support, 11 GOP senators suddenly turned against the bill during its third reading Friday. The bill failed 20-29, only to be revived and approved hours later.

The reason for the flip-flopping, according to Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, is due to HB 318, which he is carrying.

“I think it’s amazing that we’d have a bunch of Republicans willing to sacrifice Colstrip to protect corruption and fraud going on in our central committees,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “They’re willing to close down Colstrip for, really, a minor bill.”

• RELATED: Ever-changing Colstrip bill receives Senate approval, but concerns linger

HB 318 changes central committees in four fundamental ways:

  • Rules must be filed with local elections administrators to be valid.
  • Elected committee members cannot be removed from office.
  • Proxies must be approved, in writing, by the absent committee members they represent.
  • Names and trademarks of central committees can be used only by the officially recognized central committee.

Meanwhile, SB 331 seeks to secure the future of the coal-fired Colstrip generating plant with three main perks for NorthWestern Energy:

  • It allows a utility to purchase an additional 150 megawatts at the plant for $1.
  • It requires captive ratepayers to cover up to $75 million in costs associated with that additional generation over the next 10 years.
  • It eliminates Public Service Commission oversight over whether those costs are warranted.

After a one-hour recess, Senators met on the floor again and approved a motion to reconsider SB 331. This time, the bill passed third reading 27-22.

Immediately following the vote, Senators took up debate of HB 318, even though it wasn’t on the agenda.

• RELATED: In its second hearing, contentious central committee reform bill draws more opponents

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, expressed annoyance over the fact senators blasted HB 318 to the floor before the State Administration Committee had a chance to vote on the bill.

Brown is one of the Republicans that initially voted against the Colstrip bill Friday. She also chairs the State Administration Committee.

“Some of us wanted to put some amendments on [HB 318] but we never had the chance to do executive action,” Brown said during the session.

Brown said she especially took issue with the bill’s retroactive October 2018 applicability date, which is targeted at the Cascade County Republican Central Committee.

In October 2018, that committee’s chair began appointing proxies to vote for unexcused members. At least some of those committee members said those appointments happened without their knowledge.

Although supporters of HB 318 have voiced concerns about central committees in other counties, Cascade County Republicans have largely caused those concerns to boil over in recent years. Past meetings of the committee have included yelling, hired security, threats of violence and hallway meetings later ruled invalid.

• RELATED: Tensions in GOP threaten to boil over as lawmakers seek to put a lid on county committee fights

“Do I think some of these central committees are dysfunctional? Yes,” Brown said. “Do I think some are high-functioning? Yes. But when the state wants to get involved in our central committees, I think we’re messing with stuff that should be done on the local level.”

Fitzpatrick serves on the Cascade County Republican Central Committee. Sen. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell, implied Fitzpatrick had personally crafted the bill to serve his own self-interest.

“If we will not hold ourselves accountable to high moral standards, who will? But when we can have perception [that] a bill that can be used for personal gain or advantage, then we forfeit the moral authority to create the laws of this state,” Olszewski said during heated comment and drawing reprimand from the Senate chair.

Olszewski attempted to have HB 318 indefinitely tabled, but senators voted against the motion 23-26.

Olszewski ultimately voted to support SB 331, the Colstrip bill, while Brown again voted against it. It now moves to the House.

HB 318, the central committee bill, survived second reading 26-23. The House already approved the bill by a healthy margin last month. It must pass a third Senate vote before reaching the governor’s desk.

“I didn’t really appreciate the attacks on my integrity here,” Fitzpatrick said. “Central committees are not the book club … They’re important for our society. They should be fraud-free.”

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Leia is an award-winning journalist who has covered the environment and public policy in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.