HELENA — This year, several hundred thousand Montanans will have the opportunity to select their member of the state Public Service Commission. But what exactly will the winners be asked to do?
The PSC’s authority touches many aspects of Montanans’ lives. State law says the five commissioners “supervise and regulate the operations of public utilities, common carriers, railroads, and other regulated industries.”
Their job includes approving rates and monitoring service quality for private electric and natural gas companies, balancing the utilities’ financial stability and ratepayers’ concerns. Most prominently, they oversee NorthWestern Energy, as well as Montana-Dakota Utilities. However, they don’t regulate the smaller electric co-ops that serve several hundred thousand Montanans.
The PSC also has jurisdiction on private water and sewer companies and landline telephone providers. While they don’t set rates for private garbage companies, they do decide which ones can enter specific markets. In addition, they oversee taxi services and ridesharing companies.
Two seats on the commission are up for election this year. The most crowded race is in District 5. After a federal court redrew the districts to bring their populations more closely in line, District 5 now includes just four counties: Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark and Teton.
Four Republicans and two Democrats are seeking to represent the district, taking over for Commissioner Brad Johnson, R-East Helena, who is termed out. I asked each of the candidates what they thought the role of a Public Service Commissioner should be.
Annie Bukacek, R-Kalispell, an internal medicine physician and former Flathead Board of Health member, says commissioners should be an advocate for the public.
“They need to have a sound mind and a strong work ethic, also the ability to form and maintain quality, trusting relationships with people,” she said. “The other thing is the ability to take research and other information and apply it to decision-making and recommendations.”
Bukacek says, while she hasn’t worked closely with utilities in the past, she does have experience standing up for people in her work. She calls for more “free-market principles” in the PSC’s regulation of industries.
Dean Crabb, R-Marion, who formerly worked as an electrical lineman in California, says commissioners need an understanding of the industries they regulate so they can set appropriate rates.
“If you don’t have the experience inside of the utility industry and know what it takes to get it from point A to point B to the house, and how much all of that costs, the timeframes behind it, the material, the equipment, the inspections, all of the maintenance that has to happen and everything, you’re lost,” he said.
Crabb says the PSC needs to get more involved in inspections and ensuring proper maintenance for the companies it oversees. He wants Montana’s electrical system to become more independent.
Joe Dooling, R-Helena, a farmer, rancher and business owner, says the PSC needs to be firm but fair arbiters when judging a utility’s proposed rates.
“We’re calling balls and strikes, we’re looking at cases coming in front of us, we’re saying, ‘Yep, this one falls within the rules, this one’s outside the rules,’” he said. “That’s what the Public Service Commission is. We don’t tell them what to pitch, we just say whether it’s a strike or a ball.”
Dooling says he’s had experience working with engineers on utility-related projects, as well as on “quasi-judicial” agencies that operate like the PSC. He doesn’t believe agricultural users have had enough representation on the commission.
State Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who has sat on and led legislative committees that oversee the PSC, says commissioners need to be ready to start a complex job on Day One.
“We’re at a situation where we’re going to have some serious supply-side problems in energy, and an intimate knowledge of the energy sphere, energy market and the players, I think is going to be critical to make sure the PSC makes good decisions in future rate cases,” he said. “That’ll be the number-one thing that I can bring.”
Skees believes the commission has made its procedures too complicated, especially for small water and sewer providers. He wants the state to encourage power generation within Montana, rather than purchasing power from outside.
John Repke, D-Whitefish, a retired finance executive, says the PSC needs someone with the background to understand utilities’ business plans, so the public can trust the rates were negotiated fairly and correctly.
“The financial structure of a company like NorthWestern Energy is very complex, and you really can’t do the job of representing the ratepayers well unless you understand the nuances in complex financial statements like that,” he said.
Repke says he’s worked with oil and gas and waste management companies, and he’s seen how they’re regulated. He encouraged voters to base their choice on experience rather than politics.
Kevin Hamm, D-Helena, who is an owner of IT and internet-service businesses, says commissioners need to understand the details, but also be ready to stand up to bring attention to what’s happening.
“You’ve got to have somebody who isn’t just willing to read the numbers and get into the statistics, you also have to have somebody who’s willing to be loud, state the obvious, get it in front of people and get more people involved,” he said.
Hamm says he has a background in regulated industries and understands why regulation is important. He believes the PSC hasn’t been assertive enough, and he wants them to do more to encourage utilities to transition away from polluting forms of energy.
The other district holding an election this year is District 1, which covers Great Falls and much of north-central and northeastern Montana. There, incumbent Commissioner Randy Pinocci, R-Sun River, is running for another term. K. Webb Galbreath of Browning is also running in the Republican primary. There is no Democratic candidate in the race.