The Montana Senate on Monday resoundingly rejected a bill that would turn the Montana Public Service Commission from an elected to an appointed body.
Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, carried Senate Bill 160 onto the floor Monday after it narrowly passed committee Feb. 11. The bill proposed multiple changes to the structure of the PSC, including shrinking its size from five to three commissioners, increasing terms from four to six years, making those positions governor-appointed and establishing qualifications to serve.
The PSC is a quasi-judicial body that regulates monopoly utilities. The commission is responsible for balancing a utility’s return on investment with “captive” consumers interests, including rates and service. Commissioners are elected from five geographic districts.
Kary told the Senate he had studied utility regulators in other states and Montana is the exception when it comes to electing commissioners. The senator believed an appointed commission would be less partisan, better able to balance consumer and utility interests, enhance subject-area expertise and better represent the state as current districts vary widely in size and number of citizens represented.
The bill saw impassioned opposition from Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, who previously served two terms on the PSC. The backgrounds of commissioners should be immaterial, he said, and appointments would remove the responsibility commissioners have to voters. Molnar also raised concerns about industry influence on appointments in other states.
“We need to maintain the rights of our democracy,” he said.
Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, spoke in favor of the bill. Citing a recent history of issues between commissioners at the PSC, he believed appointed commissioners would see additional accountability.
Kary closed on his bill, noting that some PSC decisions have taken years and again criticizing the current commissioner districts, saying they do not offer equal representation for Montana’s utility customers.
The bill failed on a vote of 16-34.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.