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Government & Politics
Information and news from Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio and Montana Free Press to help you make an informed decision. Absentee ballots sent out: May 13Primary Election Day: June 7General Election Day: Nov. 8Help shape our elections coverage: Fill out this form with the questions you think we should be asking the candidates running for Congress.

June primaries will determine races for two seats on Montana board overseeing utility rates

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Two seats are up for election on the Montana Public Service Commission, a five-person regulatory body that oversees electric utilities in the state, reviews rates and balances utility and consumer interests.

There is a Republican primary in District 1, which includes most of northcentral and northeast Montana, and Republican and Democratic primaries in District 5, which covers the northwest part of the state.

Yellowstone Public Radio energy report Kayla Desroches sent an email questionnaire to candidates. Below are the responses presented as they were submitted by candidates.

District 1 Republican Primary

YPR did not receive a response from incumbent Randy Pinocci by deadline. Arlo M. Christianson filed to run but dropped out of the race.

Please give us your elevator pitch: Who are you and why are you running?

K. Galbreath: I graduated from Browning High School in 1994 and Joined the Marines in July of that year. I spent 10 years as a Marine, when my service was complete in 2005 I went to work for a road construction company, I work for two years. In 2007 I was Hired as a Police Officer with the Bureau Of Indian Affairs Browning, Montana. In 2012 I went to the University of Montana where in earned my degree in Political Science, and a minor in Native American studies.

I'm running for Public Service Commission for two reason. 1) There is no Leadership at this organization. With the scathing audit, several lawsuits, and scandal's there needs to be a change at the highest level. The commissioners are using tax payers money as their own slush fund to fly first class. There are to many termed out Politian's hold this office, they are riding the gravy train, waiting for their next office to run for. 2) Montanans can not wait another four years for the PSC to be fixed, rates are out of control, and the young and old are suffering. There are five Republican's on the Commission 3 vote as republican's, the other two vote with the companies that bank roll their campaigns. I call them rhinos.

What experiences do you have that prepare you to serve on the PSC?

Galbreath: I'm a small rancher, I sit on the board of directors for the Siyeh Corporation. The business arm of the Blackfeet Tribe. The corporation manages the casino, grocery store, water department, tela communications on the reservation. dealing wit budgets and planning for the future is what we do. Seems to me that this Public Service Commission has been dealing with scandal's and weak leadership for sometime now. Failing an Audit is not a good thing, nor is the law suites that PSC has lost. This is a time for choosing! Most people don't even know what the PSC does. On June 7th, 2022 you can continue with a scandal plagued PSC, or you can elect K. webb Galbreath, proven leadership, transparent, and Hard working.

What would your priorities be as a commissioner?

Galbreath: My priorities as commissioner will be #1 to make sure that integrity and honesty are brought back to this department. #2 That we put the people first with lower rates.

What if anything do you think needs to change going forward in order for the PSC to best balance the interests of ratepayers and utilities? 

Galbreath: This office should be nonpartisan. I feel that there are two many termed out politicians on the commission.

What experiences do you have that prepare you to serve on the PSC?

Galbreath: I feel that Montana should be self supporting of our energy, we could then sell excess to other states, Nuclear needs to be on the table as a viable energy source.

The PSC has been in the public eye over the last few years for an email leak, infighting and a legislative audit that pointed to misused travel funding, falsified documents and ineffective leadership. What do you see as the boundaries between the commission and the public and what do you see as a commissioner’s role in maintaining them?

Galbreath: In my eyes there are no boundaries between commission and public. Commissioners are elected by the people and need to start working for the people.

District 5 Democratic Primary

Please give us your elevator pitch: Who are you and why are you running?

Kevin Hamm: Your utility bills have been doubling often in the last decade, and it’s getting so it’s hard to tell if that’s an electric bill or a mortgage - and that shouldn’t be happening. I’m the only candidate willing to fight to make it stop and to reverse it.

John Repke: ​​

· I am a retired finance executive with 40 years of professional, private sector experience in positions ranging from field accountant and materials man to financial analyst to CFO.

· I have a bachelor’s degree in finance from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in finance from the University of Denver.

· I have worked in industries specifically relevant to the PSC including oil & gas, regulated utility services (solid waste collection), alternative energy (landfill gas & waste-to-energy), and pipeline inspection repair & maintenance.

· I finished my career in 2021 when I retired from SmartLam, LLC, a Columbia Falls, MT wood products manufacturer where I had served as CFO for 3 years.

· I volunteer with MT based environmental groups and Whitefish city committees. I have taught business classes at FVCC and through economic development organizations in NW Montana.

· I am running to give voters in District 5 the opportunity to elect a PSC commissioner who is truly qualified for the job, will focus on the job without other distractions, and has the integrity to do it honestly, professionally, and objectively.

What experiences do you have that prepare you to serve on the PSC?

Hamm: I’ve been working in and around regulated industries most of my life, and I know how regulations can negatively impact the business and I know how they can negatively impact the public. From aviation to telecom, regulations are there because of safety and service level needs, and too often recently our PSC has chosen to prop up the utilities on the bank accounts of the public. That’s not what should be going on. Of all the candidates, Democratic or Republican, I’m the only one who has stood up to the industries I work in to stop the Montana Legislature from giving us massive handouts to do the things we are going to do regardless. When the House Energy committee decided they wanted to give a tax break to the internet companies for building in rural counties, I’m the only one from the industry that stood up and told them not to do it. We have multi-billion-dollar international companies getting tax breaks in tiny counties of Montana for having a fiber line run through the county, and no guarantee that anyone is getting service from it. Money from rural schools just went to buy another round of scotch for the oligarchs of the telcos like Verizon and Charter. We need someone like me who has no problem with standing up to the rest of the utilities and saying “nope, that’s not right and it should not happen” and that someone is me.

Repke: Functional Experience

· I have 40 years of experience in the disciplines recognized as necessary to do the work of a PSC commissioner (i.e., finance, accounting, economics, statistics) – and I have relevant industry experience to go with it.

· I understand the accounting of complex organizations, cost of capital and risk adjusted rate of return calculations, capital budgeting for large industrial projects, financial projections using statistical models, etc. Commissioners are not truly representing the ratepayers if they don’t have deep understanding of these topics.

· I have worked in and managed operations in industries that are highly relevant to the PSC including energy production (oil & gas, waste-to-energy cogeneration, and landfill gas to electricity), regulated public services (waste collection & disposal, municipal recycling), and others (including pipeline inspection, repair & maintenance). For example, I have calculated and defended rate of return requirements for tariffs regulated by local government agencies – exactly the work done by MT’s investor-owned utilities. I fully understand the rate setting processes.

Professional Experience

· I have decades of experience managing organizations where I led healthy, successful cultures based on respect, integrity, and collaboration while creating an environment for individuals to reach their potential.

· I have led organizations where internal policies are strictly followed and external audits are taken seriously and welcomed as objective, necessary confirmations of the organization’s integrity. And I have witnessed the consequences of dishonesty in organizations.

What would your priorities be as a commissioner?

Hamm: The PSC has several areas of utility that have been neglected to the point of risk for the public. Uber and Lyft have decimated taxi service, and in doing so have left communities stranded without accessible transportation options, and that needs to be investigated and remedied. BNSF has taken over the assets of Montana Rail Link and has made employment for their engineers and crews so toxic that hundreds have chosen to leave rather than maintain their employment. And they still don’t publish the train schedule so you never know if you’re going to be stuck at a crossing for 10 minutes or an hour, no matter the time of day. Garbage companies aren’t expanding into much-needed recycling because they haven’t been incentivized to do it, and the PSC could easily help to create the incentives and the partnerships to do so. And the grid is old. Power poles are older than any of the candidates from either side of the aisle, and some equipment still deployed in the field is approaching triple-digits in age. One of the expenses we’re charged by NWE is because to get electricity we have to use the grid, but they haven’t been using that money to maintain and upgrade the grid. In fact, their failure to do so resulted in the Denton fire last winter. All areas that the PSC regulates need to be reviewed and fixed so that the companies providing the service are compensated fairly, and the public are paying reasonable rates. Yes, that’s a tough balance to find, but that’s the job. It’s what I signed up to do.

Repke: Re-establish the PSC as an organization capable of fulfilling its responsibilities to ratepayers in a manner that is competent, objective, transparent, and honest. Specific priorities will include

· Bringing real world expertise to the analysis and decision-making processes, in particular as they apply to the upcoming NWE rate case.

· Developing an environment where the PSC can attract and retain top notch staff

· Establishing the PSC as a place where entities proposing new energy projects will know that their projects will be evaluated fairly.

What if anything do you think needs to change going forward in order for the PSC to best balance the interests of ratepayers and utilities? 

Hamm: Funny you should ask, as the current PSC doesn’t take into account the rate-payers at all. For years now they have just rubber-stamped the requests of the utilities without looking into the details of what caused the issue and if it’s a valid expense to pass to the rate-payers. This past winter NWE told the PSC that because gas prices were rising that the average bill would go up 47% or more. TOLD. Not asked. Not requested. TOLD. And the commissioners just accepted that as a given and waved their hands and hoped the public would eat cake and go away. That won’t happen without a very big fight when I’m there because that’s the job of the commission, and they’ve been failing at it for years.

Repke: Everything that needs to change involves trust.

· Ratepayers need to know they can trust that the commissioners have the expertise, focus, and commitment to effectively negotiate rates on their behalf. (This is done by electing qualified commissioners.)

· Utilities and operators of qualifying facilities need to know they can trust that the commissioners are capable of fully understanding their finances and their proposals so that decisions are rational, informed, and consistent. (This is done by electing qualified commissioners.)

· Agency staff needs to know that they can trust the commissioners to follow policies, behave professionally, create a healthy environment, and respect their expertise in the decision-making process. (This is done by electing professional, honest commissioners with management experience.)

· All Montanans need to know that they can trust the commissioners to represent them in a way that is open-minded, objective, and fair. (This can be done by electing commissions who are not all carbon copies of each other.)

What do you see for the next four years in Montana’s energy future and your role in it should you win your party’s nomination and then the seat?

Hamm: We have to move into green, renewable generation and we need to reinforce the grid infrastructure by building and accommodating distributed micro-generation, such as roof-top solar, so that we make sure that future Montanans aren’t dealing with a planet on fire. The best science says we have between 12 and at a maximum 20 years to reverse the damage, but if we don’t start now we won’t get it done. We’ve all seen the destruction that’s happened with the weather being out of whack—fire season starting early and compounded by an unprecedented and extended drought. We need to rethink all that we do, and if we’re building anything new to accommodate our way of life that is ultimately a pollution generator, we need to think again and not do it. We can and should incentivize green renewables, and do it fast.

Repke: Montana’s energy future is facing a number of challenges. NWE, the largest electric and gas utility provider in the state, already purchases much of the power it sells from outside the state and its largest generating facility is in trouble – financially and otherwise. Meanwhile as demand here and elsewhere continues to grow, Montana energy security is at increasing risk. New in-state generating facilities will need to be added. As commissioner, my role will be to objectively and properly evaluate the economics of the proposed facilities and make decisions that are fair to the ratepayers and providers. This is a critical role. In the past, improper evaluations have led to extended delays and additional costs – neither of which we can afford.

The PSC has been in the public eye over the last few years for an email leak, infighting and a legislative audit that pointed to misused travel funding, falsified documents and ineffective leadership. What do you see as the boundaries between the commission and the public and what do you see as a commissioner’s role in maintaining them?

Hamm: The PSC has been a joke for nearly a decade, coming to a pimpled head in the last few years as they failed an audit, slept during hearings, and generally abdicated their job. Their failures have damaged Montanans, as we’re seeing with CenturyLink allowing copper assets to fail to the point of endangering people’s lives, to the sale of Montana Rail Link to BNSF leading to hundreds of skilled employees leaving due to unconscionable changes to staffing systems, endangering every Montanan that ventures near a rail road crossing. CenturyLink has let its copper line assets fail to the point that people stuck paying for it are paying $79/month for a service that works less than 10% of the time. That’s criminal, and needs to be addressed. But most important the PSC has to do right by the people of Montana. Yes, the utilities are allowed to make a profit, but they are not guaranteed a profit. It’s time we had a commissioner who understands that distinction.

Repke: The items referenced in your preface to the question, among other actions of the commissioners for which there have been no consequences, have understandably eroded the public’s confidence in the commission. This lack of confidence creates workarounds in the form of lawsuits and legislation which diminish the role of the PSC and ultimately serve as boundaries. Furthermore, boundaries are created when the commission is comprised of members from only one wing of one political party. Much of the public is not represented. Neither of these boundaries should be maintained. My role as commissioner will be to the eliminate these boundaries by ensuring that the PSC does its job and does it well, operates with transparency and integrity, and represents all Montanans.

District 5 Republican Primary

YPR did not receive a response from candidate Dean Crabb by deadline.

Please give us your elevator pitch: Who are you and why are you running?

Anne Bukacek: Standing up for people is what I have done throughout my adult life… in my vocation as a medical doctor in Montana for over 30 years and in my avocations of grassroots leadership, I am in touch with the people…listening, studying and problem solving. My passion for running for Public Service Commission is proportional to my passion for keeping Montana energy-independent and for being put in a position to advocate fairly for all Montanans in the rates and use of utilities. I am committed to making Montanans the number one most important special interest group.

Joe Dooling: Firm but fair. Growing up in Dillon, my dad, who worked as a lawyer, would offer up one liners as life lessons. He would frequently tell me “son, people watch how you lose just much as they watch how you win, so be mindful of your actions” or “in a small town your neighbors are bound to start fighting, so don’t be picking sides, because if you do, before long you won’t have any friends.”

As I begin my campaign for Public Service Commission, I am reminded of another one of my dad’s one liners: “son, the judge was firm, but he was very fair in the ruling.” This phrase has stuck with me years after his passing. As I watched my son play football, I’d often question in my mind if the referee called it right, or during his baseball games, was that really a strike?

The Public Service Commission (PSC) acts as a regulator of private companies which have a monopoly in the market place. These private companies provide a necessary service for everyday life, but are the sole provider of that service.

The job of a Public Service Commissioner is to be firm, but fair. What does that mean? It means the Public Service Commission must ensure consumers have access to utility services that are affordable, reliable, and sustainable over the long term.

Over the last twenty years, Montana began an experiment in deregulation. The results have not been good for the ratepayer. Montana went from one of the states with the cheapest prices for electricity to one with the most expensive. In addition, we went from being an exporter of power to an importer of power.

In the last twenty years, the consumer has seen power rates double and then some. The dams that provide power, recreation, and irrigation uses are being paid for the third time by the rate payers. Once when they were originally built, once when they were sold to PPL, and now, a third time after the dams were sold to Northwestern Corporation. Montanans have paid these costs each time.

Not only has our deregulated energy market been bad for the customer, it has been bad for the companies which provide us with electricity. Both Montana Power and Northwestern Corporation have been forced into bankruptcy as a result of deregulation.

Other than upgrades to the dams, a peaking unit in Anaconda, and a few windmills, there has not been a serious solution to the growing demand for energy in Montana in years. The PSC should be encouraging long term stability for our electricity costs and working to ensure there is adequate supply.

If elected, I promise to be firm, but fair when it comes to regulating monopolies. I will work to protect the customer, but I will also work to ensure we have long term solutions for our energy needs. We must take control of our energy future and ensure all Montanans have access to affordable, reliable utility service.

Derek Skees: I ran for this office back in 2014, and have been very concerned with the successes and failures of the PSC since then. I have been in the Montana House for 8 years, and been a part of the energy committee for that whole time. We have many energy concerns looming on the horizon for Montana, and we will need a person with the experience with and knowledge of the history and issues that have been and will be in front of the PSC in the immediate future. I am endorsed by the majority of the current commissioners, know many in the staff and understand the statutory responsibilities of the office. I’m the only candidate that can start on day one, and not have to learn how to do the job. I am also the only Republican candidate publically committed to setting my current business aside, and I plan on moving to Helena for the full time job the tax payer expects us to do.

What experiences do you have that prepare you to serve on the PSC?

Bukacek: The PSC job requires a sound mind, strong work ethic, ability to form trustworthy and mutually respectful relationships, and the capacity to use research and other information to make sound and fair decisions and recommendations. I have that skill set, plus strength of character. My record is clear and it will be my legacy on the PSC: to be an advocate for all Montanans and not be beholden to corporate interests. I have never been and never will be beholden. As a business owner, old fashioned doctor and known citizens advocate, I am in a great position to be fair and judicious in balancing the ledger between consumer and supplier of power and other utilities.

Dooling: Experience comes in many forms for me. In 2017 President Trump appointed me to serve on the Farm Service Agency State Committee were we were tasked with reviewing Federal cases. I spent 14 years at an Engineering firm where I worked on municipal projects, calculated water rates, and worked on long term strategies for clients. I also worked on the Montana Alberta Tie Transmission Line—building a power line between Lethbridge and Great Falls. In addition, I bring small business/farming experience to the Committee. My wife and I run a farm/ranch, rentals, and trucking business. As a small business owner, former Farm Service Agency member, and as a citizen, I understand how the rulings made at the PSC affect families and small businesses. I will bring both a small business and agricultural perspective to the Commission.  My hope is to keep rates low while improving reliability and safety within all utility sectors.

Skees: I have 6 years of House Energy committee leadership experience, and 2 years of ETIC leadership, the committee that has statutory oversight for the PSC. I have studied the past 8 years of Legislative audits on the PSC and have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the office, and want to work with the current commissioners to continue to make the PSC the best agency it can be. I understand the energy portfolio of the major energy providers in Montana, know the risks we have with loosing coal generation and damns in the region, the shrinking market of generation while we expand the demand for power. The risks are great for the Montana consumer of energy in our future, from transmission to generation, and I can bring that experience and understanding of those concerns and make a difference day one on the job.

What would your priorities be as a commissioner?

Bukacek: As public service commissioner, I will stay in close contact with the citizens and legislators in my quest to bring about changes that will, i) on the one hand provide as much as possible free market principles to the regulation of power monopolies and on the other hand ii)bring more regulation to areas where it is needed such as water compact management boards…This combination will go a long way to balance the interest of consumers and suppliers of utilities. My passion is to protect ALL Montanans as provided under our state Constitution.

Dooling: Someone needs to put the ratepayers first—I will be that candidate. Our population boom and inflation is making Montana unaffordable. As farmer and rancher, I understand the impact of electricity costs on the irrigator, the homeowner, and the small business. As a member of the PSC, I will make sure that the Commission exhausts all efforts to keep rates low because higher costs can devastate a family’s financial stability.

Skees: Primarily I want to continue to fix the internal issues the past Audits have uncovered regarding the administration of the office. I also want to do a deep dive into the rules the PSC have set up from policy passed by the Legislature over the years, to make sure they adhere to what we wanted when we passed them. I want to especially concentrate on small water user rules, as I think those they really need to be evaluated and reformed. I will join the commissioners in their efforts to fix the concerns on the internal workings of the PSC, and will work to advance any needed changes in statutes with my many allies within the conservatives of the Legislature.

What if anything do you think needs to change going forward in order for the PSC to best balance the interests of ratepayers and utilities? 

Bukacek: Changes I think would most benefit the balance would be i) applying as much as possible free market principles to the regulation of power monopolies, and ii) bring more regulation to areas where it is needed such as water compact management boards…This combination will go a long way to balance the interest of consumers and suppliers of utilities. My passion is to protect ALL Montanans as provided under our state Constitution.

Dooling: The PSC has become an embarrassment to Montana. Too many career politicians with special interest agendas have played legislative games with the PSC. I’m a plain spoken, common sense driven, Montanan that doesn’t play games with the family budget. I will be a strong leader on the PSC and won’t be pushed around by special interests. I will be firm but fair.

Skees: Excellent question, and yes in fact we need to restore that balance of power between the PSC and the utilities they regulate. Past commissioners have vacillated between being anti-monopoly and anti-regulation, and that swing of the enforcement pendulum needs to be halted at a perfect balance of regulation and accountability to the consumer and the company both. I know where that point could best be, and will work with commissioners, the MCC and allies in the Legislature to establish it, and help them tie it down once and for all.

What do you see for the next four years in Montana’s energy future and your role in it should you win your party’s nomination and then the seat?

Dooling: There exists some misconceptions about what the PSC does. The PSC doesn’t set energy policy, but rather, they evaluate the options and decide if the plan is in the best interest of the consumers. Like an umpire calling a game, the PSC doesn’t get to decide what the pitch will be, but rather just makes the calls. The PSC should be encouraging long term stability for our electricity costs and working to ensure there is adequate supply.

Bukacek: In the next four years, I foresee Montanans struggling to maintain their use of Montana’s abundant natural resources that provide all we need for energy production, even with the burgeoning of the population. Feasibility and safety of nuclear power for Montana is being studied based on the passage of Joint Resolution 3 (bipartisan support, roughly 85% voted yay during the 2021 session). No question, this will have heavy evidence during the 2023 session. The pros and cons of smart meters will no doubt be discussed during the next legislative session. In these three items, PSC will play a critical role, predominantly in the interpretation and adjudication of any new legislation, but also as giving testimony regarding new legislation based on the focus of PSC expertise.

Skees: My role in it all as a PSC commissioner will be to enforce the rules and laws made by the policy decisions passed by the Legislature, as those issues are before the PSC. I can’t bring my bias into it, and we do not establish policy, just enforce it as a commissioner. I see many concerns, from removing Hydro in the Snake River, to killing coal in Montana, to adding Nuclear to our future, yet I have confidence the good folks in our Legislature will map out a strong course for the PSC to follow.

The PSC has been in the public eye over the last few years for an email leak, infighting and a legislative audit that pointed to misused travel funding, falsified documents and ineffective leadership. What do you see as the boundaries between the commission and the public and what do you see as a commissioner’s role in maintaining them?

Bukacek: I am pleased with the job Commissioners Jim Brown and Jennifer Fielder have been doing to bring more accountability, transparency and civility to the PSC….and I will be happy to assist them in this venture. On the PSC, I plan to be very involved with notifications of various kinds to the citizens for legislative and PSC-issues pertinent to their lives.

Dooling: We have can do better. As members of government we need to hold ourselves to a higher level and avoid playing games. The PSC needs to earn the trust of the people and can only do that by being transparent and communicating with the rate payers of Montana. Again, the Public Service Commission must ensure consumers have access to utility services that are affordable, reliable, and sustainable over the long term.