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House lawmakers tabled a steep pay cut for Montana’s Public Service Commission on Thursday.

Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, had argued that it was the PSC’s staff that did most of the work involved with balancing the fair-price interests of customers with the reasonable profit interests of monopoly service providers. He asked the commission’s pay be limited to 75 percent of the salary of utility commissioners in other states.

There had been intrigue about the timing of Regier’s House Bill 683, which was introduced at roughly the same time as a controversial Colstrip closure bill, Senate Bill 331. The Colstrip bill requires NorthWestern Energy customers to keep paying off a $407 million Colstrip-related debt to the utility regardless of whether the power plant keeps running. Regier said HB 683 was not a leverage bill.

The majority of Montana’s PSC endorsed the bill earlier this week.

Regier told the committee the pay cut arose after the PSC requested $114,000 for a staff attorney. He reasoned the amount could be carved out of the salaries of the commissioners, all of whom make more than $100,000 a year.

“If this bill passes, then the Public Service Commission would get that extra attorney. If it doesn’t and you guys believe the money should stay in the position of the commissioner, then the commissioners would be tasked with doing that work,” Regier said.

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The commission is an elected, quasi-judicial body. Being an attorney is not a requirement.

No one spoke in favor of the Regier’s proposal. But there were witnesses who said the Public Service Commission’s work was complicated, and in order to attract skilled candidates the pay should match the job.

“What the Public Service Commission does is so much more than just attending meetings and speaking at those meetings,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It can take hundreds and hundreds of hours, or review of records; they are a judge, in order to review the mountain of information that is often provided by the utility. The Public Service Commission is the only line of defense that captive customers, 370,000 Montana NorthWestern Energy customers, are dependent on — the Public Service Commission reviewing extensive records, pushing back against the army of utility attorneys, and making a decision on behalf of so many of your constituents. This is a really important job, and I don’t always agree with the commission, but that’s not what this is about.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.