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Big Sky Connection


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Eric Tegethoff

March 1, 2018

HELENA, Mont. - A U.S. Interior Department advisory committee proposed on Wednesday that companies pay less in royalties to taxpayers for the right to drill and dig on public lands. 

The Royalty Policy Committee is made up of fossil fuel industry representatives and delegates from top energy-producing states. There's also smaller representation for tribes and academics, some of whom have been tied to oil and gas companies. 

Members were appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Dan Bucks, former director of revenue for Montana, says the committee has largely met in secret up to this point and that energy companies have been driving the process.

"Companies are seeking various measures that make it easier for them to pay less in royalties, to lease federal minerals at bargain basement prices, and to not be as diligent in meeting their environmental responsibilities," says Bucks.

The energy industry says lower royalty rates are needed so they can do more business on federal lands - thus bringing in more royalties for the federal government. Most of the top energy-producing states and public land acreage is in the Mountain West.

Bucks says the Interior Department uses the concept of energy dominance to defend more extraction of fossil fuels. However, he says energy dominance flies in the face of the multiple use policy on public lands enacted by Congress, which says lands must also be set aside for recreation, wildlife, clean air and water, and other uses. 

He says the Interior Department has set up a "rigged lottery" for the fossil fuel industry.

"It's really contrary to the law that says you're supposed to not pick a winner in advance and you're supposed to consider all of the competing uses for the land and pursue development in a balanced way," he says.

The committee also proposed cutting the royalty rate for offshore drilling to the lowest rate possible under federal law.


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Big Sky Connection


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Eric Tegethoff

February 26, 2018

HELENA, Mont. - Public employee union members in Montana and across the country have their eyes on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justices on Monday will hear Illinois employee Mark Janus' case against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) over so-called fair share fees paid by non-union members to unions for their representation in matters such as collective bargaining.

If the court sides with Janus, he'll still get representation but won't have to pay for it. And it also could deliver a big hit to public sector unions' coffers.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, Montana's largest public employee union, says public schools could be at risk if AFSCME loses this case.

"I would worry about the future of public education in America, as I would worry about it right here in Montana because there are folks that see us a primary obstacle to the privatization of public education," he states. "So I see the agenda. I get what's going on. But we're going to put up quite a fight."

Supporters of Janus say he shouldn't have to pay fair share fees on First Amendment grounds.

Twenty-eight states are known as right to work states, meaning people who are covered under public employee contracts don't have to pay the fair share fee for representation.

Montana is not among them, although that could end if the justices side with Janus.

With calls to arm teachers since the shooting at a Florida high school, Feaver says there may be another reason to fear the demise of unions for those that don't believe guns should be on school campuses.

He says MEA-MFT has been a staunch opponent of firearms in schools at the legislative and executive levels in Montana.

"Kill MEA-MFT and maybe you, in fact, have just now armed up schools in Montana," he points out. "I see these things directly related."

Feaver says this case is part of a long fight to weaken unions across the country. He adds there's no question less money will hurt their operations, but it's not going to stop them.

"Those who think that Janus by itself is going to kill MEA-MFT or other public sector unions in Montana I think are going to be sorely unhappy about the result," he states.

In a similar 2016 case, justices ended in a 4-to-4 deadlock over the fate of fair share fees.


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