Candidates Pack PSC District 5 Primaries | News
Could be an audition for Village People.
The doctor, the lineman, the rancher, the legislator, the internet service provider and the financial analyst. Each of them insisting that he has the right credentials to be the fifth member of the Montana Public Service Commission, which regulates businesses that Montanans have no choice but to use.
Montana is one of the few states in the country to elect its public utility commissioners. The only requirement for the position is that candidates be of voting age and live in their constituency. Base salary is $112,444.80 plus benefits. District 5, which includes Flathead, Lake, Lewis & Clark and Teton counties, is on the June 7 primary ballot.
Candidates running for the PSC say the question voters often ask is what the commission does. Former candidates ran successfully on issues unrelated to the work of the commission, including gun rights, ANTIFA, abortion, and an end to the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Pact on the water.
Anyone who receives electricity or natural gas service from someone other than a cooperative has a household budget affected by the decisions of the CSP. The commission is a quasi-judicial body created by the legislature to balance the right of a monopoly utility to a fixed return on investment with the right of consumers to a reasonable price and reliable service.
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Proceedings before the commission are conducted like cases in a civil court. PSC decisions have lasting impacts on utility customers and Montana’s economy. As monopoly utilities acquire power plants and infrastructure, their customers commit to incurring long-term debt to pay for those assets, while also paying for maintenance, operation, and repairs. The PSC determines what the debt burden of clients should be. A wrong decision can result in clients paying hundreds of millions of dollars more for assets, plus interest, than the assets are worth.
The Republican race drew four candidates, three from Flathead County, which has produced at least half the votes for District 5 primary races for the past 20 years. The former candidates won the Republican primary without winning Flathead County, but a second-place finish is required to win the district.
The Democratic race pits Helena’s Internet service provider Kevin Hamm against Whitefish’s retired CFO John Repke. Democrats have not had a contested primary involving these counties before.
Hamm touts his experience in the world of federally regulated ISPs, responding to both customers and regulators, as his basis for understanding what public service obligations are for an essential service. He tells voters that if the Public Service Commission fails to balance the needs of public services and customers, taxpayers feel it. The economic consequences of not properly regulating monopolies negatively impact everyone.
As Hamm told Lee Montana Newspapers earlier, everyone needs the lights on, regardless of their politics.
“Everyone needs the lights on. And if you want to advance your cause, the lights have to be on, the internet has to work, your phone has to work. And that comes from the PSC working,” Hamm said. “So you probably want to vote for someone from the PSC who actually understands these things.”
Repke was chief financial officer for Waste Management, a multistate garbage hauler who is no stranger to utilities. Repke said his strength is understanding business economics and what constitutes a fair rate, which is part of his job at WM.
“The PSC listens to proposals and evaluates them. I’m a businessman. I was in the private sector for 40 years, in finance, in large companies. I respect businesses. We want to make sure the energy is reliable and secure, but we also need to make sure they don’t pass costs on to taxpayers that they shouldn’t and that takes analysis to understand,” Repke said during the election campaign.
Republican Derek Skees could talk about the importance of Flathead County. This is not his first campaign for the post of commissioner of the PSC. He won Flathead County in the 2014 primary, but lost the district to current commissioner Brad Johnson, who is ruled out. In this case, a second Flathead candidate, John Campbell, made up the difference in the county.
The 2022 Republican primary kicked off with sandbag allegations between Skees, a lawmaker who announced his PSC campaign at the end of the 2021 session, and Joe Dooling, a Helena-area rancher and holder of a office in the Lewis and Clark County Republican Party.
Skees served on the House Energy Committee for several terms. It is this experience that he presents as his qualification as commissioner of public services. One of his duties on the committee was oversight of the PSC.
Dooling worked for the engineering firm that built the Montana Alberta Tie Line, one of only three major power lines from Montana. This infrastructure and agricultural business experience is the basis of what Dooling says makes him qualified.
The candidates stirring the pot in Flathead County are Ann Bukacek, a physician and key figure in Montana’s anti-abortion movement. “Dr. Annie” was never a candidate for office in Montana, but her organization and notoriety are strong in conservative circles. It is this popular advocacy that Bukacek says shows she can listen to a base of Bukacek posted a series of YouTube videos outlining his positions.
Dean Crabb is Flathead’s third resident. This is a retired utility lines employee, who says familiarity with the infrastructure is what the PSC lacks. He would like commissioners to actively inspect the infrastructure and literally take into account the workings of the infrastructure when setting customer rates.
Crabb tells Lee Montana Newspapers that the commission must work with monopolistic utilities and not be adversarial.
Every candidate, Republican and Democrat, running in District 5 has, to some extent, exposed the dysfunctionality of the PSC. Whether its commissioners sleep through meetings, impersonate state legislators, spy on others’ email accounts, or use government resources for personal political campaigns, the behavior of current commissioners has not gone unnoticed.
“I don’t think it’s a shocking statement to say that the PSC has been a bit of a joke. We saw the commissioner sleeping. We’ve seen them fly first class across the country, embezzle the money and do the audits,” Dooling said during a forum broadcast live in Choteau. “What I hope to bring to the Public Service Commission is to bring it back to a level of respect that the job should have.”
Skees takes a more moderate tone for the current commission. As a member of the Montana Legislature’s Interim Energy Telecommunications Committee, Skees has seen the last two Public Service Commission audits.
“The failures were mostly clerical errors, not delivering receipts correctly, not spending the trips, the president using it for first class flights. So it was an economic failure, not a statutory failure” “Skees said, noting that the commission had addressed concerns cited in its latest tax audit. The commission is improving, Skees tells voters. He would like to be part of those improvements.”
A point of clarification, the chair Skees is referring to is Brad Johnson, the current commissioner for District 5. Johnson was chair during the last legislative audit of the PSC’s finances. Johnson stepped down from president to vice president last year and was succeeded as president by James Brown, a current state Supreme Court nominee.
Brown’s title is no longer president, it’s president, a change the PSC unanimously made earlier this year for clarity. The commissioners also changed Johnson’s title to vice president.
Skees said he was the only District 5 nominee endorsed by all commissioners except President Brown, who as a Supreme Court nominee avoids endorsing nominees.
Skees is the only state lawmaker campaigning to join the PSC this year, but he wouldn’t be the only lawmaker elected to the commission. Jennifer Fielder, elected in 2020, is a former lawmaker who replaced another former lawmaker, Bob Lake, on the commission. Randy Pinocci, elected in 2018, is also a former lawmaker.
Could be an audition for Village People.