Montana Public Service Commissioners would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate instead of elected by voters if House Bill 755 becomes law.
Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, proposed the legislation Monday as a way to bring technical expertise to the five-member commission, similar to some other boards in Montana that rely on skilled industry professionals, he said.
The PSC regulates monopoly utilities, such as Northwestern Energy. The agency also oversees garbage and taxi companies that want to enter the market, and it plays a role in railroad and pipeline safety.
At a hearing in the House Legislative Administration Committee, Fern said the state Board of Investments is one example of another board made up of subject matter experts, in that case, fiduciary professionals. He pointed to the Board of Public Education as another example, that one made up of educators.
He also said converting the PSC from a body of elected partisans into appointed experts would more closely align with governance models followed by 40 other states.
(The bill wouldn’t remove current elected commissioners; it has a “grandfather” provision for the regulatory board to transition from elected positions to appointments.)
As proposed, the governor would appoint a commissioner from each district, and the Senate would confirm appointments. A nomination committee would consist of four majority members of the legislature and three minority members.
Qualified candidates would have a bachelor’s degree and five years or more of experience practicing law or in science, technology, engineering, utility valuation, or other related fields, according to the bill.
The bill is sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans. The current PSC is made up of only Republicans.
In response to a question from Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre, Fern said different states have different commission designs. For example, he said some have five members, others have three; many, but not all, are appointed by governors; some retain partisanship, some do not.
“What I hope it represents is the very best practices,” Fern said of HB 755.
Rep. Terry Falk, R-Kalispell, asked Fern his reason for the bill. Fern said it’s to bring technical knowledge to the PSC, and it’s also in part because voters don’t have a full understanding of the work of the PSC.
Falk said a better solution might be more voter education. He said he believed partisanship still would play a role on the commission, but the politics would just come through the Governor’s Office instead.
Fern, though, said partisan people can have “a great deal of competency” on boards, and he agreed people appointed to commissions don’t throw away their political beliefs.
So if the governor appoints a Republican with a high degree of technical knowledge to the PSC, that would work out well as far as he’s concerned, Fern said. He noted commissioner positions are high-paying jobs — roughly $112,000 a year, according to a state website with employee data.
Fern, though, said the bill would remove some pressure from the state political party.
“I hope it just lowers the temperature a little bit,” Fern said.
At the meeting, Robin Arnold, with Renewable Northwest, spoke in favor of the bill. Arnold said of the nine states that elect utility commissioners, many have much larger staffs than Montana.
They work at maximum capacity and at low wages compared to what they could earn in the private sector, she said. One consequence? The largest energy utility in Montana “steals lawyers” from the PSC after they have some experience, she said.
Arnold also said frequently, candidates for office have no background in fields that would prepare them to make regulatory decisions, although they learn. Making sure commissioners are familiar with related subjects from the start would increase the expertise in the agency — without increasing its budget.
“Commissioners who are appointed also tend to be more active in case filings on a much deeper level and are less reliant on staff to understand issues,” said Arnold; she noted she previously worked at the PSC and respects the commissioners she worked with.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill Monday.
In addition to Fern, it is sponsored by the following representatives: David Bedey, R-Hamilton; Tom Welch, R-Dillon; Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman; John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda; Brad Barker, R-Roberts; Paul Tuss, D-Havre; and Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula.
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