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Proposed Bill Would Appoint Fewer Utility Regulators, Currently Elected Positions

Tony O'Donnell speaks into a microphone at a lecturn.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Montana Public Service Commissioner Tony O'Donnell of Billings testifies against Senate Bill 160 at a Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee hearing Feb. 2, 2021.

A Montana Senate Committee on Tuesday heard a bill that would change how Montana chooses regulators who set rates for electric and other utilities.

If passed, Senate Bill 160 would change the five-member voter-elected Public Service Commission to a three-person governor-appointed body.

Bill sponsor Republican Senator Doug Kary of Billings told the Energy and Telecommunications Committee Tuesday commissioners should be selected based on relevant experience.

“I’m trying to put individuals there that have a specific background that will help them," Kary said.

Current Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell of Billings spoke against the bill on behalf of the PSC.

“In my mind somebody, like us, who has the nerve and the gumption to stand up and run for office… That’s somebody who represents the public. Not somebody's who’s appointed. That person represents the person who appointed them," O'Donnell said.

Makenna Sellers with environmental group Northern Plains Resource Council also said the switch to a governor appointed commission would take away the public’s voice. One part of the bill Sellers approves of would create prerequisites for commissioners.

"A general knowledge about the function of the PSC or some sort of background in law, engineering, accounting, we might recommend adding economics to that list," Sellers said.

In 2019, a proposal for the Legislature to study the impact of changing from elected to appointed commissioners never made it out of committee.

Lawmakers have questions about Senate Bill 160’s potential cost to the state, but an analysis of that cost isn't yet complete.

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