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Election news from Yellowstone Public Radio and its partners to help you make an informed decision at the polls.

What partisan politics on the Public Service Commission could mean for Montana energy

Colstrip power plant
Kayla Desroches
/
Yellowstone Public Radio
Electric Powerlines

Republican Ann Bukacek of Kalispell won her district’s race for the regulatory board that sets electric utility fees in Montana. She beat Democrat John Repke for the only competitive seat on the Public Service Commission with 56% of votes.

Her win keeps the five-member board all-Republican. The last time a Democrat was elected to the PSC was in 2008.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Kayla Desroches spoke with Billings Gazette agriculture and politics reporter Tom Lutey about the election — and what it could mean for the PSC going forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kayla Desroches: Tom, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tom Lutey: Sure, glad to be here.

The Public Service Commission is a regulatory board, but its members are also partisan. How does the addition of Bukacek to the PSC influence its composition? 

Well, I don't think it influences it a lot. I mean, the commission is majority Republican.

That's not going to change now. So, it doesn't probably change it in that sense. And then of course, the other part about it is too, is that this is a very complex job, right?

The material’s not easy to understand and you sort of have to think about any new commissioner as facing a steep learning curve, and so I don't know if you necessarily see something from Anne Bukacek or any other new commissioner that's really impactful in the near term.

How do commissioners politics affect the PSC's regulatory decisions, if at all?

Obviously, there have been cases where their politics have affected their decisions. Go back and look at the lawsuit that was filed by Vote Solar and MT Sun. Those were two separate lawsuits that were put together, but the thrust of it was that the commission was biased against solar, and was making decisions that they knew were going to harm the industry. They lost that lawsuit, the PSC did, but I do think that's a good example of sort of how politics come into play, right? Another one would be conversations about coal power and saving coal power, and there's certainly an interest in making sure that the customers, customers of monopoly utilities in Montana, are getting their power from particular power sources and not as a matter of cost effectiveness, but as a matter of political preference.

Obviously, this is a political commission, the candidates identify with political parties. That's the way that the composition is put together, and even NorthWestern when they make presentations to potential investors, sort of discloses what the political makeup are of the commissions that they're in front of.

So, obviously it's important to kind of everybody involved. Beyond that, though, I think if you look at the decisions that were made by previous commissions, they're a little bit different, but they're not night and day different.

If you look at the issues that were really important to voters across the country this year, and obviously the messaging that was out there, particularly by Republicans, was really inflation, inflation, inflation, right?

Well, the PSC District 5 race in Montana is really the only race on the ballot where inflation really was the issue, right? It really is. There really aren't many positions in government where rates are actually decided by the government.

Before we wrap up, is there anything else you wanted to add?

There are fewer than a dozen states that elect their utility commissioners. And as a result of that process, the commissioners come in and they're not necessarily vetted for any experience or expertise about utility matters.

And as a result of that, you have a commission that is sort of highly dependent on input from staff and also potentially highly dependent on information provided by the utilities that they regulate. You know? And that can be a problem.

If you don't know enough about the subject matter to question what you're being presented with, you're at a disadvantage. And I think that's often the case with our elected commission.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.