2020 Primary Preview: Montana Public Service Commission

May 22, 2020


Primary races are crowded for the Republican-dominated Montana Public Service Commission, which sets customer rates and approves new power, water and legacy telecommunications projects by regulated utilities in the state.

Recent items in front of the PSC include a proposal from NorthWestern Energy to buy an added stake in the Colstrip coal-fired power plant and the rate case of that same monopoly utility that serves almost 380,000 electric customers in Montana.

In southeast Montana, current Commissioner Tony O’Donnell is being primaried in his run for a second term.

“What sets me apart is I have no agenda other than listening carefully to all sides," O'Donnell told YPR.

While in the past he’s cast himself as across the aisle from environmental advocates and proponents of renewable energy, he says he’s been receptive to hearing all opinions and considers that a commissioner responsibility.

Official seal for the Montana Public Service Commission
Credit Montana Public Service Commission / Montana Public Service Commission

Two Republicans are challenging O’Donnell’s incumbency: State Representative Daniel Zolnikov and former PSC commissioner Kirk Bushman, both of Billings.

Bushman ran and lost against O'Donnell in the 2016 PSC primary. He touts his previous experience as a commissioner on the PSC and 30-year engineering background.

“I’ve worked with some of Montana’s largest energy users as well as Montana’s largest energy producers," Bushman said. "I have a technical background. I have a very good understanding of a lot of these technologies that are used.”

Bushman criticized the PSC for what he called dragging its feet on NorthWestern’s intended purchase of Colstrip Unit 4.

Zolnikov is a marketing consultant and chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee.

“I have spent literally years working on energy policy, and energy policy is utility and Public Service Commission policy all tied together," Zolnikov said.

He told YPR as commissioner he’d reform the PSC, which he says is caught up in personality differences and hierarchical issues.

Earlier in May, Zolnikov submitted a complaint against opponent Tony O’Donnell, citing violations of the Montana code of ethics and campaign finance law.

In the general election, the Republican nominee for the District 2 seat will likely face Democrat Valerie McMurtry of Billings, a retired teacher, who is running unopposed in the primary.

In southwest Montana, Commissioner Roger Koopman of District 3 is terming out. Running for his seat are Republicans engineer Alan George of Belgrade and lawyer James Brown of Dillon.

George is an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Montana State University and says he could benefit the PSC with his high-level knowledge in engineering and science.

“My qualifications to reform technical and business tasks as processed by the Public Service Commission are superior to the other candidates," George said.

Meanwhile, Brown says he’s represented a variety of interests before the PSC as a lawyer and therefore would not bring an agenda to the commission.

“My whole professional training is to be a neutral party,” Brown said.

On his website, he writes he values a diverse energy portfolio, free market development and low rates.

State Representative Tom Woods of Bozeman is competing for the seat on the Democratic ticket.

Analyst Rob Elwood of Harlowton filed as an independent. It’s so far unclear if he has enough signatures to appear on the November ballot. The deadline for him to submit signatures is May 26.

In western Montana along the border with Idaho, District 4 Commissioner and Vice-Chairman Bob Lake is terming out.

Republicans running for that seat include former Montana Republican party chairman Will Deschamps of Missoula, state Senator Jennifer Fielder of Thompson Falls and former state Representative Champ Edmunds of Darby.

In addition to being a former legislator, Edmunds is a business owner and has a background in finance and accounting.

"This is a job that requires you to wade out into the weeds of the details and that’s what I’ve done all my life," Edmunds said.

Edmunds said his biggest priority is to keep rates low for the average consumer.

Deschamps, who also has a career in business and finance, echoes that value. He says it’s vital for the PSC to make sure that a potential energy supplier is stable enough for the long haul to prevent losing unsustainable power in the future. He says he supports all energy sources.

“I’m dedicated, I’m even-handed and I’m professional," Deschamps said.

Jennifer Fielder is a small business owner and has served in the state Senate for roughly eight years. She’s the CEO of nonprofit American Lands Council, which advocates for local control of federally-managed public lands.

"I’m going to look at the issue before me with objectivity, apply critical thinking and make decisions based on the interests of the people in Montana," Fielder said.

On her campaign website, Fielder writes she seeks to advocate for ratepayers without over regulating companies.

Democrats vying for the seat are environmentalist Daniel Carlino of Missoula and attorney Monica Tranel of Missoula.

Carlino takes a stance against electricity generation from fossil fuels and advocates for clean-energy alternatives.

“My elevator pitch is that I’m working to protect the environment and I’m working to protect our public health," Carlino said.

Tranel is a former PSC staffer.

“I will walk into the office on day one knowing what needs to be done and knowing how to do it," Tranel said.

On her website, Tranel writes she supports fair pricing for renewable energy and she’ll promote small operations like rooftop solar.

Some candidates, Tranel included, referred to ongoing conflict within the PSC as a reason for needing change at the commission.

That conflict includes a leak of one commissioner’s work emails and allegations of threats of violence.