Under the radar elections: Montana Public Service Commission

With all the hoopla surrounding the 2020 presidential, gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and House elections, three very important races aren’t getting much attention. They’re the seats on the Montana Public Service Commission.

Commissioners decide how much you’re going to pay for your power, both electric and natural gas, among their other responsibilities. Their decisions also greatly influence where your energy comes from: fossil fuels vs. renewables.

As of late, the PSC has allowed utility companies to call the shots. The commissioners particularly like sticking it to solar development. And commissioners didn’t seem to balk much at Northwestern Energy’s attempts in the 2019 Montana Legislature to thwart oversight, regulations and renewables in general.

But there’s good news. There are five seats on the PSC, all held by Republicans. If three capable, forward-thinking commissioners were to be elected, they’d be in the majority and progress could be made toward clean, affordable energy.

Two of the current members are termed out: Bob Lake and Roger Koopman. Commissioners serve four-year terms and are allowed two terms in a row, then they’re out.

With the exception of Lake and Koopman (and the three other commissioners) term limits are a bad idea for this particular office. It’s a complicated job with a steep learning curve. Assuming one grasps the evolving energy markets, complex rate structures and the environmental degradation that accompany various decisions, experience is a good thing.

The third seat that’s up in 2020 is Tony O’Donnell’s. He’s finishing up his first term in District 2, which is basically the Billings area and counties to the east. He’ll probably file again since the gig pays around $100,000 a year plus some pretty sweet benefits. (You might remember O’Donnell as being involved in some campaign shenanigans when he “loaned” $3000 to coal-loving Billings Rep. Rod Garcia.)   

Koopman is from District 3, which includes Bozeman, Butte and Livingston, and most of Southwestern Montana.

Lake is from District 4, which stretches from the Hamilton area, through Missoula, and all the way up to the Canadian border in the northwest corner of the state.        

The two remaining commissioners are Randy Pinocci, District 1 (here’s his biography, read it and weep) and former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson of District 5.

There’s not one mention of clean or alternative energy, climate change or the environment, in any of the official PSC bios in the above links for the five commissioners.

Here’s an anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake.

A friend called me from Helena last week. She was attending the PSC hearing on a NorthWestern rate increase request.

“Who are these (redacted)?” she asked of the commissioners, “Does NorthWestern pay these guys?”

It’s a fair question since the commissioners, with a few exceptions, have rolled over for Northwestern Energy. The PSC seems particularly enamored with extending the lives of the outdated, CO2 spewing coal-fired electrical generating plants at Colstrip.

My friend was at the hearing because she hopes to install solar panels on her roof and heard the utility wanted to charge her more for being a responsible, renewable energy consumer.

So there’s your choice: three new commissioners who will consider consumer needs and alternatives to fossil fuel generated energy, or the status quo that favors utility company profits over people and ignores the future of our planet.

UPDATE: Bozeman Rep. Tom Woods is running for the District 3 PSC seat. Woods’ tenure at the Montana Legislature was one of protecting consumers and advancing clean energy alternatives, along with other enlightened legislation. This is indeed good news.    

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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About the author

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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  • Of the current five members of the PSC, Brad Johnson has (perhaps) been the least pernicious. But since that’s due to his dim intellect and lack of either interest or effort, I’d say that is “damning with faint praise.”

    As you point out, this elective office doesn’t receive the interest or attention it deserves. These [redacted] have been nothing more than a rubber stamp for anything NWE has demanded. Hopefully voters do a better job this time around.

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