Voters narrowed their choices for new leadership on utility bills Tuesday, choosing candidates in three of Montana’s Public Service Commission districts.
In races from Missoula to Billings, Republicans nominated three candidates in contested primaries. Jennifer Fielder won in northwest Montana, which includes Libby and Missoula. James Brown won in the southwest, which includes Butte and Bozeman. Incumbent Tony O'Donnell won the southern district, which includes Billings and Miles City. The only contested Democratic primary was in northwestern Montana, where Monica Tranel won.
Montana’s five-member Public Service Commission is a quasi-judicial body created by the Legislature to balance a monopoly utility’s right to a fixed return on investment with the consumers’ right to a reasonable price and reliable service. The only requirement for the job is that candidates be of voting age. The current salary for commissioners is $109,000 a year.
The decisions made by the PSC have lasting impacts on utility customers and Montana’s economy. As monopoly utilities acquire power plants and infrastructure, their customers are committed to long-term debt to pay for those assets, while also paying for maintenance, operations and repairs. It’s the PSC that determines what that debt burden should be. A bad decision can leave customers paying hundreds of millions of dollars more for assets, plus interest, than what the assets are worth. That’s money not being spent elsewhere in the economy.
There were two multi-candidate Republican races. In southern Montana, where incumbent O'Donnell won PSC District 2 with 14,164 votes, there was a rematch with former commissioner Kirk Bushman, whom O’Donnell unseated in the 2016 primary after three of Bushman’s fellow commissioners opposed his re-election. The third in the race is Daniel Zolnikov, a state legislator who was chairman of the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Bushman was runner up in early returns, with 12,926 votes, in a race where the future of Colstrip Power Plant and its supporting community played a key role. All three candidates live in Billings. The district covers 10 counties from Carbon County to the North Dakota state line. Zolnikov had 12,013 votes.
The District 2 Democratic candidate, Valerie McMurtry, was uncontested and advances to the general election.
O’Donnell was the only current commissioner seeking re-election. Commissioner Bob Lake, of Hamilton; and Roger Koopman, of Bozeman, were prevented by term limits from running again.
The other multi-candidate Republican race was in northwest Montana, where Fielder was pulling ahead in District 4 with 16,662 votes, or 45% of the total.
There was a former state Republican Party chairman in Deschamps, of Missoula; a state’s-rights firebrand legislator in Fielder, of Thompson Falls; and another former legislator in Champ Edmunds. In northwest Montana, the discussion was more about keeping utility rates reasonable, than expressing fealty to coal power. Deschamps was runner-up with 13,038 votes. The seven-county district stretches from Lincoln County to Powell County. Edmunds had 7,408 votes.
There was a sharp contrast in candidates in the Democratic race for District 2 where Missoulians Tranel and Daniel Carlino competed. Tranel won District 4 with 25,882 votes to Carlino's 7,782.
Tranel is a well-versed utility attorney now in private practice who has represented several renewable energy companies in disputes with NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest monopoly utility. Earlier, Tranel was an attorney for the Montana Consumer Counsel, the state’s constitutionally created consumer advocate on utility matters. She is also a former attorney for the PSC.
Carlino is a recent University of Montana graduate who is part of a nationwide network of advocates calling for a “Green New Deal,” a plan to convert the United States to renewable energy by 2030. Carlino pledged to vote against any fossil fuel power plant utilities might ask that customers be required to pay for.
In southwest Montana, for the first time since 2012, incumbent Roger Koopman wasn’t on the ballot. That set the stage for the race between attorney and lobbyist James Brown of Dillon and Alan George, a mechanical engineering professor at Montana State University. Brown won with 24,053 votes, or 65% of the total. George had 13,074 votes. District 3 is a rangy district that stretches from Anaconda to Park City, just 20 miles west of Billings. The 12-county district stretches from Deer Lodge County to Musselshell County.
The Democrat in District 3, state legislator Tom Woods, a veteran of the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications committee, was uncontested. Woods teaches at Montana State University and has been a legislative watchdog of NorthWestern Energy.