A proposal sponsored by a Republican senator from Billings to change the structure of the Public Service Commission, which provides regulatory oversight for public utilities, received little support from the Senate Monday and is likely dead.

Senate Bill 160, which would have changed the Public Service Commission from an elected body to an appointed body, failed to pass second reading by a vote of 16-34. In addition to creating an appointment process involving the Legislature and the governor, SB 160 would have dropped the number of commissioners from five to three.

In hearings for SB 160, bill sponsor Doug Kary suggested that his proposal would lead to a more qualified commission equipped to “hit the ground running” on complicated regulatory decisions involving energy, water and garbage utility companies that serve the public. Opponents countered that the measure would negatively impact Montana consumers by making the commission more political and more beholden to industry interests.

Brad Molnar, a Republican senator from Laurel, zeroed in on the appointment process and the professional experience requirements outlined in SB 160 during both its initial hearing on Feb. 2 and the Feb. 22 discussion before the full Senate.

Molnar, who served eight years on the PSC from 2005 to 2013, said the bill would create an opening for undue industry influence on the PSC. He said that if SB 160 were to pass, industries overseen by the PSC would lobby for positions on the commission by making campaign contributions to the governor, which would create a “100% political” system that would cut Montana’s electorate out of the process.

Molnar also questioned the value of a provision regarding professional experience. To make his point, he ticked off names of well-known commissioners who didn’t have backgrounds in any of the five fields (law, engineering, accounting, finance, and property or utility valuation) outlined in the measure.

The elephant in the room that received only veiled mention during the Senate hearing was the in-fighting and a recent legal dispute that have beleaguered the commission. 

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, said that making the commission appointed rather than elected could help make it more accountable by giving commissioners a boss to report to.

“I think we’ve over the past few years seen some of the things that have happened in the PSC and it’s not all been good — not necessarily their decisions, but actions [by] their members. I think by appointing these PSC members we can hold them more accountable.”

Including Ankney and Kary, just six Republicans voted in favor of SB 160. With its poor showing before the Senate, Kary moved to indefinitely postpone the bill, making it unlikely to be revived during this session.

latest story

Share your stories of our Shared State

Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio are now soliciting stories for the second season of our ‘Shared State’ podcast collaboration.

Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.