HELENA – Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson, vying for a second term representing western Montana’s PSC District 5, says he’d like to continue helping guide the regulatory body in keeping rates affordable for consumers – and fair for utilities.
“That’s the core of what we do,” Johnson told MTN in an interview Tuesday. “I think we’ve done a good job of that, there’s a lot of work left to do, and I want to continue down that road.”
Johnson is being challenged by Democrat Andy Shirtliff of Helena, who says the Republican-controlled PSC too often has sided with utilities in hindering renewable-power development in rural Montana.
“The job of a regulator is to hear both sides and then make a ruling, not to hold one (industry) back, based on ideology,” he said. “I think that we need an all-of-the-above energy policy, which we don’t have at the PSC.”
Voters in the six-county district will decide the race in three weeks. Absentee voting started this week and the election concludes at the polls Nov. 6.
District 5 stretches from Helena to Kalispell and also includes Polson and the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s one of two seats up for election this year on the five-member PSC.
Johnson, 67, was first elected to the PSC in 2014. Before that, he served as Montana’s secretary of state for one term and also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
The former energy consultant and executive for agricultural associations says since he’s been chairman, the PSC has prevented more than $100 million in rate increases for consumers.
Among those decisions was a ruling last year that blocked several commercial solar-power projects, which had applied to take advantage of a rate for selling power to NorthWestern Energy as independent providers.
At the request of NorthWestern, the PSC voted to suspend the rate, saying it had become far above the price of power available on the market.
Johnson said that vote saved Montana consumers as much as $60 million, and was dictated by federal and state laws, which say consumers shouldn’t pay above-market prices for independent projects.
Shirtliff, however, said that decision also torpedoed projects in rural Montana and discouraged solar- and wind-power developers from coming into the state.
“I think the PSC needs to be a willing participant in (encouraging development), instead of holding businesses back,” he told MTN News.
Shirtliff, 38, grew up in Kalispell and has worked as a small-business adviser in the governor’s office. He works currently as a social media coordinator for the marketing arm of the state Department of Commerce.
He also said the PSC should be more vocal on expanding Internet access in rural Montana and preserving privacy on the Internet.
Johnson said the PSC has little or nothing to do with regulating the Internet, and instead is focused on the mundane tasks of ensuring steady, reliable regulation of electric, natural gas, water and telecom utilities in the state.
“It’s stuff that is remarkably unsexy,” he said, noting that the commission lately has gotten rid of outdated railroad regulations, tried to streamline regulation of small water utilities, and advised on policy for net-metering of small, rooftop solar-power installations.
The PSC also is getting ready to consider a major rate case for NorthWestern Energy, the state’s dominant electric and natural gas utility.
Shirtliff says if he’s elected, he’ll look for ways to ensure that PSC decisions lead to fairer utility prices, better jobs and higher wages in the state.