Voters across huge chunks of north and northeast Montana will fill two seats on the body that sets rates for regulated utilities, including NorthWestern Energy, which serves nearly two-thirds of the state’s homes.
Republicans have held all five of the Public Service Commission’s seats since 2012 and hope to keep it that way, but two Democrats are aiming to change that.
The PSC’s District 5 spans the continental divide to cover Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Lake, Glacier and Pondera counties. In that race, PSC Chairman Brad Johnson is running for a second term against first-time Democrat challenger Andy Shirtliff. Both live in Helena.
Johnson, who describes himself as an “old cowboy,” is a former Montana Secretary of State, serving one term before losing to Democrat Linda McCulloch in 2008.
He quit a 2010 race for the PSC after a DUI conviction and lost a rematch for Secretary of State. He won his PSC seat in 2014, and was later selected chairman.
He said his understanding of the job and its responsibilities gives him an edge over a challenger with no experience. He also he expects the PSC will be looking further into solar and wind development, adding that his isn’t biased in favor of coal, as his opponent argues.
“There is no inherent bias on the part of the commission against renewables,” he said. “The Legislature sets the rules; we are quasi-judicial.”
He said he is the experienced choice for the job, having treated consumers and utilities in a balanced fashion.
Shirtliff, who was born in Butte and raised in Kalispell, has lived across the state. His background includes working for former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Gov. Steve Bullock, advocating for small businesses. He said he hopes to make a change at the PSC.
“I think Montana could be an energy leader, but the PSC holds back other sustainable energy options to give leeway to coal,” he said. “If the PSC made it more open for other resources, it would cause greater competition between energy sources, which would make better jobs and grow the economy.”
He also sees new issues on the PSC’s horizon, including the role it plays in ride-sharing businesses and even crypto currency, which uses relatively large amounts of electricity.
He has some reforms in mind too, including reducing the PSC from five members to three and improving the public’s understanding of what the commission does.
“The PSC needs to bring transparency,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what it is, and so a lot of people aren’t being held accountable.”
In District 1, which covers Montana from Toole County east to the North Dakota line and includes Great Falls, Lewistown, Glendive and Sidney, features contestants Doug Kaercher, a Havre Democrat and the city’s finance director, versus Republican Randy Pinocci, a former state legislator from Sun River.