Energy Montana Politics

PSC races are making the news

Often overlooked but more important than ever, Montana Public Service Commission races are starting to get some coverage.

How are we going to toast our muffins in the morning? And mill our logs into 2x4s? Where are we going to find the electricity to do these things? Conservation would be helpful but for sure coal, wind, hydro, solar and natural gas will be in the mix. But what’s the trade off? These are just some of the questions the PSC will be grappling with in the next few years.

In the news, there’s a PSC coup a-brewing. All of the commissioners are Republicans but three out of the five are lining up against incumbent District 2 Commissioner Kirk Bushman, reports Mike Dennison. Commissioners Brad Johnson, Travis Kavulla, and Roger Koopman held a fundraiser in Billings for Bushman’s opponent, Republican Tony O’Donnell.

(Way to go, Democrats, for not fielding a candidate in this race, as the winner of the June Republican primary will be that district’s next commissioner.)

Kavulla is the friendliest toward consumers and the environment, and that isn’t saying much. So, if Johnson and the “Koopdog” think Bushman is a little too close to the utilities he regulates, that’s saying something. An example: only Bushman and District 4’s Bob Lake voted to pass the costs of another Colstrip Unit 4 breakdown along to consumers.

Let’s take a look at Lake. He has three Democrats vying for his seat, all of whom would be a vast improvement. Here’s an outtake from a guest column by former PSC commissioner and candidate Gail Gutsche on Lake’s Colstrip vote:

Commissioner Lake, who represents those of us who live in north- and southwestern Montana, did not agree with the majority of the PSC. He seemed eager to give NorthWestern a pass on what were some very questionable business decisions. Apparently he thinks consumers should pay for NorthWestern’s mistakes.

The third PSC race features a Democrat and an Independent facing off against District 3 incumbent Koopman in the November general election. Democrat Pat Noonan, out of Butte, has name recognition having served eight years in the Montana House of Representatives. Independent newcomer Caron Cooper lives in Livingston. She had an opinion piece the other day at Montana Cowgirl worth a read. A snippet:

Over the past year, I identified three trends that appear to have contributed to a decline in objectivity and effectiveness in the PSC: term limits; partisan politics; and accepting donations in past campaigns from one of the biggest monopolies the PSC charged with regulating. I believe these trends go a long way towards explaining why the PSC seems to be working counter to its own mission of protecting Montana consumers.

I heard Cooper at a Democratic Party function last summer but I believe that after Noonan filed, she went Independent, with the blessing of the party. That she has a post at Cowgirl confirms this. I’ll be curious to see the numbers at the close of this race. Independents have a tough row to hoe but since it has already been a weird campaign season, who knows how Cooper’s candidacy will impact the outcome.

All three PSC races deserve attention. The dysfunction at the PSC until January 2017 is palpable: District 2’s Bushman and primary challenger O’Donnell are duking it out. District 4’s Lake is not getting any love from the commission’s majority. District 3’s Koopman, by having Democratic and Independent challengers, is making his campaign worthy of attention.

The winning candidates will be involved in Montana’s energy future and “regulating private, investor-owned natural gas, electric, telephone, water and private sewer companies, intrastate railroads, certain motor carriers hauling regulated commodities and natural gas pipeline safety regulations.”

Just those things, so please pay attention and vote accordingly.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Pete, you’re awesome. I really mean that. Your takes are always good. But you need to develop some sources. Or get new ones.

  • Cooper registered as Democrat on Jan. 13, 2015, then amended her registration to Independent on Mar. 2, 2016. She officially filed on Mar. 10, 2016. Noonan registered as Democrat on Oct. 7, 2015, then officially filed on Jan. 14. 2016. Cooper’s timeline suggests she may not have had “the blessing of the party”.

    ID contributor Calamity Jan was not too happy about the switch.

    • Thanks for the timeline, HighPoint. Two questions: why would Cowgirl post a Cooper column if Cooper is on the outs with the party, and do you think Independent Cooper will take more votes from Noonan or Koopman?

      • I think Cowgirl posted Cooper’s column because it met the Guest Post Submission Guidelines. As a District 3 resident, I believe she will take more votes from Noonan; however, depending on the outcome of her campaign complaint against Montana Conservation Voters, she may lose votes to Noonan. She’s definitely making some noise!

        • I wasn’t aware that Cooper had filed a complaint but did find it at the COPP’s website after reading your recent comment. MCV is a well-respected organization, at least in most progressive circles and even some conservative’s minds, so, as you say, “she is making some noise!” However, if the facts in her complaint are accurate, I think MCV wasn’t upfront about its candidate trainings and should be held accountable. Interesting stuff.
          (Also, sorry about the video crap showing up in comments. Still trying to figure out the source of those.)

    • There are three C-1s (statement of candidate) on file for Cooper at political practices. Two list her party affiliation as “Democrat.” Her latest, time-stamped 2 March 2016 by MTCPP, leaves party affiliation blank. The Secretary of State’s website reports she filed for office as an independent, with her status “pending.” Her website — — lists her as an independent. I would not use the phrase “registered as an independent (or Democrat or Republican)” as that could be interpreted as meaning registering to vote as a member of a political party. We do not have voter registration by party in Montana, at least not yet. Regarding Pete’s questions, I leave it to Cowgirl to answer his first. I suspect Cooper probably draws more from Noonan than Koopman. The biggest question is whether she can raise enough money to prosecute a competitive campaign.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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