HELENA, Mont. — The call for economic stimulus is having an unintended side effect in places like Montana, where environmental protections are on the verge of being repealed in the name of jobs.
One bill gets straight to the issue _ promising to exempt hundreds of millions in economic stimulus projects from the state's landmark environmental policies. Environmentalists are ramping up lobbying efforts as a wave of measures eroding regulatory rules gain serious traction in the face of a recession and shrinking state coffers.
"It is about jobs," said Sen. Jim Keane, a Democrat from the mining town of Butte. "But I think the issue is much bigger than that. All these projects also generate new taxes and revenue for the state government."
Proponents are hoping to ease the way for everything from new coal plants to electricity transmission lines. They say complex rules killed a utility's recently failed plan to build a coal-fired electricity plant near Great Falls; the utility now plans a smaller natural-gas-fired plant.
Montana is not entirely alone. Some other states facing unprecedented budget shortfalls amid a deepening recession want to make sure that current or planned environmental protections don't get in the way of building projects and economic recovery.
In California, lawmakers relaxed environmental laws for road projects and construction equipment in the name of economic stimulus as part of a recently approved budget package. In Idaho, lawmakers shut down new regulations for septic-tank drain fields because they feared it would hinder Idaho's economy, especially during a recession.
Utah is even considering a company's offer to take nuclear waste in exchange for needed cash. In Kansas, lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would pave the way for coal-fired power plants in the southwest part of the state _ though Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has promised a veto.
The move to weaken environmental protections isn't gaining steam everywhere.
In Michigan, for instance, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is talking about tightening environmental regulation when it comes to coal-fired power plants. Republicans don't have the votes to impose less regulation.
Montana environmentalists are on edge like they haven't been in years because of the louder cry for jobs over environmental protection.
"I do think it makes it harder," said veteran lobbyist Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. "I think it makes it harder for legislators that are nervous about their constituents being nervous. And they want to tell their constituents they are doing everything they can."
The conservationists are fighting back against the notion there has to be a choice between jobs and environmental regulation, saying new "green" jobs should be the future.
Backers of cutting regulation argue that doing so would make it easier not only to build coal-fired plants, but to build wind farms and the new power lines needed to carry the energy to large cities.
Montana lawmakers are separately going to be looking at ways to spend federal stimulus money on some "green" jobs, such as improving the efficiency of government buildings.
Some of the dozen or so bills that ease environmental permitting and restrict lawsuits and regulation will likely be killed in the coming weeks _ but not all of them, Hedges said.
That could leave the issue up to the state's self-proclaimed energy governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer. He has so far been quiet on the bills _ but early on in the session he met with environmentalists and urged them to keep doing battle against the "row of vultures" representing corporate interests.
"The vultures smell blood and they are going to exploit that," Hedges said. "We are going to need the governor's help."
Republican Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell, pushing the exemption of stimulus projects from the state environmental law, said he understands environmentalists are worried.
"But they don't need to be, because nobody is out to trash the environment," Barkus said. "But we need to move. This economy is scaring the dickens out of me, and a lot of other people."