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The Associated Press April 20, 2011, 8:21AM ET

Eminent domain measure endorsed by Montana Senate

The state Senate on Tuesday resurrected and gave initial approval to a measure that would give utilities the power of eminent domain.

House Bill 198 carried by Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, is aimed at giving businesses the power normally reserved for governments to take private land for public use.

The measure's reemergence gives hope to utility companies that say they need the authority to resolve disputes with landowners over multimillion dollar projects. Critics say the measure is a blow against property owners, forcing them to give up their land on unfavorable terms.

It was endorsed by the Senate on a 28-22 vote. If it passes a final vote, the bill will go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has asked lawmakers to fix the eminent-domain impasse.

How to balance issues of business development and private property rights has proven to be a challenging problem for Democrats and Republicans.

Lawmakers narrowly brought the measure out of committee Tuesday where it had been languishing for months on a split vote. The extended debate on the issue exposed unusual fault lines within each party on the issue.

Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said it was an important power to grant to develop the state's economy.

"I'm a land owner, and I have deep respect for property. But I'm also totally committed to the development of our natural resources in a responsible manner," Peterson said.

Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, said he supported the measure because of what it could do to develop alternative energy, letting companies construct new forms of energy transfer across the state.

But the proposition also drew criticism from a far range of political quarters.

Conservative property rights advocate Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said the measure was sacrificing landowner rights for a specific issue that was poorly managed by a utility company.

"Its corporate socialism at its best," Wittich said. "It's central planning."

Democrat Mitch Tropila of Great Falls agreed: "This time, I am going to vote for private property rights, and I'm going to stick up for the little guy."

Eric Moore, R-Miles City, took a different angle. He said the issue of granting the eminent domain to companies hadn't been properly presented to Montanans and if the Legislature took action on the issue now, people would see it as an individual bailout for a bad business venture that ignored property issues.

"Without any landowner compensation we will so galvanize public opinion against energy development, I think we will set it back years."

The bill's genesis came after a Canada-based company could not reach a settlement with a landowner in the path of its utility line project, MATL, in northern Montana. MATL attempted to acquire the land through eminent domain, but a District Court ruled in favor of the landowner.

Now the issue is before the Montana Supreme Court, but some legislators think the fate of the issue can't be left up to a lengthy judicial review.

The measure was originally touted as part of a package of bills to both strengthen bargaining rights for property owners but ensure the use of eminent domain for businesses.

Most of those measures have stalled and it looked as if HB 198 had as well. But it seems enough pressure has ratcheted up on the heavily lobbied issue in the waning days of the session to force the Legislature's hand.

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