HELENA – With energy prices among the top concerns, voters in the Billings, Bozeman and Missoula areas will be electing members to the Public Service Commission, the five-member board that oversees utilities.
“The job that the PSC does in the state is pretty technical and obscure,” said Doug Mood of Seeley Lake, a Republican seeking another four-year term on the commission. “What that translates into when you’re campaigning is a lot of people don’t understand the significance of what we do.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the PSC is primarily a name-recognition race,” he said, adding that he’s putting up a lot of yard signs.
Democrat Gail Gutsche of Missoula is challenging Mood in the Missoula area race.
Republican incumbent Brad Molnar is being challenged in southeastern Montana by Billings Mayor Jim Tussing, a Democrat.
And in the Bozeman area, Democrat John Vincent of Gallatin Gateway and Republican Alan Olson of Roundup are seeking the seat currently held by Bob Raney, who is not seeking re-election.
One of the main issues the PSC will deal with in the next few years is a bill the Legislature passed in 2007 that will allow NorthWestern Energy to own power generation facilities and put that power into the rate base.
“Allowing the company to be vertically integrated is a first step in capping high energy prices,” Gutsche said.
Other major issues include NorthWestern’s proposed sale of its share of the Colstrip 4 coal-fired power plant, a proposed natural-gas fired power plant near Anaconda and a NorthWestern Energy rate case expected next year.
Gutsche says the state needs to chart a new energy future, using both traditional and newer sources of energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal as well as encouraging energy efficiency.
Tussing said citizens need someone on the PSC “who is looking out for their interests and not those of big out-of-state corporations.”
He said the PSC faces the challenge of “balancing the economic issues with the environmental ones and insuring that the consumer doesn’t get gouged while allowing the utility companies a reasonable rate of return on their investment.”
Molnar, who served four terms in the Legislature, is seeking his second four-year term on the commission. He said the PSC races, in his view, are third in importance on the ballot behind president and governor.
“The deals we ink are for generations,” Molnar said. “What the Legislature does is for two years. The PSC affects your cost of living and employing in this state on a daily basis. And more people are coming to understand this as time wears on.”
Molnar said he is concerned the cost of natural gas is going to become “crushing” as plans for increased wind power in the region will mean that intermittent power must be backed up by electricity generated by natural gas-fired power plants.
In the Bozeman area race, Olson, a former state lawmaker, said people should pay attention to the PSC races because of the “impacts to consumers’ utility bills following deregulation of the major utility in Montana and the escalating prices in energy markets.”
He said the PSC must balance the revenue requirements of a utility with the financial effects on the consumer, who “must be protected from price-gouging, unreasonable profits and indecent executive pay packages by that monopoly.”
Vincent, who is challenging Olson for the seat, also stressed that energy is a pocketbook issue for families and businesses.
“The next Public Service Commission must do everything in its regulatory power to get a fair shake for Montana consumers,” Vincent said.
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