Last week, state lawmakers gathered in Helena for the first-ever Legislative Week, a five-day series of training sessions, interim committee meetings, and social gatherings aimed at maintaining connections between legislators during the 20-month break they typically take between legislative sessions.
Republican Sen. Fred Thomas of Stevensville was a vocal proponent of Legislative Week. Thomas has served in 12 sessions, plus a handful of special sessions, during three separate stints in the Montana Legislature, beginning with his freshman term in the House in 1985. And while Thomas supported the 1992 constitutional initiative that led to legislative term limits — citizens may serve as a state representative or senator for no more than eight years in a 16-year period — he now sees term limits as limiting the experience available to the Legislature.
Thomas has a unique vantage on the question, given his lengthy experience in the Capitol. Reflecting on his third stint in the Legislature, Thomas tells Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams, “Everybody in the body was different. But the people in the hallways, the lobbyists, were very similar, and our staff, and some bureaucracy. And I thought, ‘I don’t know if this is good.’”
Elsewhere in the interview, Thomas looks back on a number of highlights from his tenure in the Legislature, including his role in overhauling state tax policies and his role carrying the 1997 deregulation bill that ultimately led to the demise of the Montana Power Company — a role for which Thomas has been criticized by Democrats and the press.
Regarding deregulation, Thomas says, “I probably did it because it met my basics of government: want of less government, less taxes, and less regulation, and [I] was wanting to have citizens have the ability to have lower-costing electricity.” Thomas says the deregulated power market failed to fulfill those promises due to a lack of legislative safeguards that ultimately allowed Montana Power Company to sell off assets including the Colstrip power plant and a hydroelectric dam to Pennsylvania Power and Light. Critics say fallout from those sales, including Montana Power’s investment of proceeds into a telecommunications company that would go bankrupt within five years, are directly responsible for continuing increases in energy rates for Montana residents.