For nearly a decade, Montana’s five-member utility board has been dominated by Republican commissioners. Voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates monopoly utility companies in the power, water, garbage and telecommunications industries, since Gail Gutsche and John Vincent won their respective races and served four-year terms starting in 2009.
Whitefish resident John Repke, a Democrat, is hoping his resume and experience, which includes two finance degrees and a decade with regulated utility Waste Management, will overcome partisan loyalties in a four-county slice of northwestern Montana with a distinctly Republican lean. (Nearly 36,000 voters cast GOP ballots in the June 7 PSC primary race, compared to 16,400 ballots filed by Democrats.)
His Republican opponent, Ann “Annie” Bukacek, a Kalispell internal medicine doctor who runs her own practice, calls for the preservation and expansion of hydroelectric and coal-fired power, both of which she says are in abundant supply in Montana. Bukacek’s campaign slogan is “Let’s keep the lights on,” a nod to concerns foregrounded in her campaign materials about access to baseload power — energy supply that can be quickly ramped up or down to meet fluctuating demand.
A video from a campaign event posted to YouTube in May alludes to Bukacek’s motivation for throwing her hat in the ring for the seat three days ahead of the filing deadline.
“The night before I filed, I tossed and turned all night. I could not sleep, and it’s because I was not comfortable with any of the people that were running for this position. In my morning prayer, after tossing and turning all night and reaching out to God, I heard in my spirit very clearly, ‘You do it.’”
Bukacek has pledged to make the PSC’s work more accessible to constituents, and has suggested that there’s room to expand the agency’s purview of oversight. In particular, she’s argued that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact should be subject to PSC oversight, tapping into concerns about what she’s described as “unfair rates, discriminatory takings and other possible depredations.” After winding through executive and legislative branches of federal, state and tribal governments for the better part of a decade, the compact was signed by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last September and is currently before the Montana Water Court, which is accepting objections to the compact through Dec. 6.
Bukacek has a committed following in the Flathead Valley that helped pull her through a tight four-way Republican primary against termed-out state lawmaker and fellow Kalispell resident Derek Skees, Helena farmer and rancher Joe Dooling and retired utility lineman Dean Crabb of Marion. After the four counties in District 5 completed a recount at Skees’ request, Bukacek emerged with an 87-vote victory over Skees and a 791-vote lead over Dooling.
In recent campaign filings, Bukacek reported raising $16,610 between mid-June and mid-September. Her campaign expenditures report from August and September includes $145 on purchases of the book “Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal and Natural Gas — Not Less,” and $24 for a CD copy of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” written by the same author. She also recorded a $40 expenditure on a book titled “Inconvenient Facts” that she described as “related to my research on Climate Change.”
Originally formed in 1907 to oversee railroad operations, the five-member Public Service Commission regulates monopolies in the power, natural gas, water, telecommunications and garbage collection industries. This year’s PSC race has drawn an eclectic mix of candidates vying for two open seats on the commission — among the highest-paid positions in state government — and each candidate is pitching a different understanding of the commission’s role.
Bukacek did not return multiple Montana Free Press requests for an interview or comment, but at an August luncheon hosted by Helena’s Kiwanis Club, she described herself as a proven grassroots leader with a “ravenous thirst for knowledge.” She has developed a reputation as someone adept at using her platform to challenge prevailing narratives on vaccination, public health measures and climate change.
President of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition since 2008 and a Montana Shooting Sports Association board member, Bukacek opposed pandemic lockdown measures and questioned the accuracy of COVID-related death reporting at an April event coordinated by Liberty Fellowship, a Kalispell church that pledges “not to be coerced, intimidated, or bribed into preaching politically correct messages or avoid political issues affecting our liberty.” (Liberty Fellowship pastor Chuck Baldwin, who served as the Oath Keepers’ national chaplain from 2013 to 2020, is among the dozens of donors who’ve hit maximum campaign contribution limits supporting Bukacek.)
Bukacek has also served on the Flathead City-County Board of Health at the request of county commissioners, assuming that position in January 2020 and resigning in March to run for the PSC.
Material on Bukacek’s campaign website and posted on YouTube outlines her skepticism about climate change. She’s described the country as being pulled into a “fake energy crisis based on a fake climate change crisis” and draws parallels between governmental responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change in a pro-fossil fuel presentation that goes on to quote biblical text.
“The war against mankind is waged by control over your water and power,” she says at one point in the presentation.
There’s broad consensus in the scientific community that emissions of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane contribute to a warming climate, which research in Montana links to shrinking snowpacks, diminished summer and fall streamflows and longer and more intense wildfire seasons.
Both nationally and internationally, the energy sector is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The PSC exercises some influence over the sources of the state’s electricity supply by scrutinizing the rate structures monopoly utilities use to recoup the cost for new projects such as the natural gas plant NorthWestern Energy has started building in Laurel. The commission also provides oversight when renewable energy developers set up contracts to feed power into utility lines owned by monopolies. Sitting commissioners have demonstrated support for specific energy sources in more overt ways, too, such as backing ultimately unsuccessful legislation that would have incorporated the economic impact of coal-fired plant closures into commission decision-making and raising the specter of electricity shortfalls should Colstrip’s coal plant close.
Repke told MTFP on Oct. 14 that he’s troubled by attempts to favor one electricity source over another, both by sitting commissioners and by his opponent. He argues that Bukacek has demonstrated bias against solar and wind energy by distributing PowerPoints and videos “that were very anti-renewable energy” to elected officials. He said he anticipates that solar and wind farms will become increasingly competitive as efficiency and innovation in the industry accelerate, and that it’s inappropriate for a commissioner to put personal or political preferences for specific energy sources over their obligation to serve ratepayers.
“The commission should have no agendas other than to accomplish the goals of affordable, reliable, sustainable energy for Montanans,” he wrote in response to MTFP’s 2022 Election Guide questionnaire. (Bukacek did not provide a response to the same questionnaire.)
Repke also argues that the PSC would be subject to “complete chaos and dysfunction” if Bukacek is elected, referencing a letter to the editor penned by Bill Burg, who served on the Flathead City-County Board of Health with Bukacek during the last two years of his term, to support that claim. Burg wrote that he found Bukacek’s presence on the board a “truly disruptive influence,” particularly regarding her views on COVID-19 issues, and said she was rebuked by the assigned deputy county attorney because she “actively proselyted outside the boundary of Board meetings.”
“She preached and did not listen,” Burg wrote. “She opposed testimony of medical experts in immunology and virology and substituted her own anti-vax views.”
Repke credits recent PSC scandals and concerns about commissioners’ ability to skillfully navigate regulated industries and complicated financial statements with his decision to run for the PSC. He’s described the PSC as “characterized by personal squabbling, inadequate individual competence in the skills required for effective regulation, poor administrative judgment, a weak work ethic, and a desire to limit public participation.”
“As long as the PSC continues to be used as a place to pad pensions or to serve as a political soapbox, decisions will continue to be reversed by the courts, providers won’t be able to rely on rational, consistent processes, and customers will be exposed to huge increases in basic household and business expenses,” he wrote in MTFP’s election questionnaire.
Repke reported more than $67,000 in campaign contributions between mid-June and mid-September, more than four times the amount Bukacek reported over the same period.
THE PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION
The candidates have differing opinions about the efficacy of the current commission, with Repke describing commission dysfunction as a key motivator for his campaign and Bukacek taking a more favorable tone toward the commission’s record.
“I’m not expecting to go up and clean up a corrupt system,” Bukacek told Kiwanis members at the Helena luncheon, the only public event featuring both candidates since the primary. “I’m going in there and hoping to help [commissioners] Jennifer [Fielder] and Jim Brown make it a better system.”
Fielder and Brown, the commission’s president, are the two most recently elected commissioners. Repke and Bukacek are seeking termed-out commissioner Brad Johnson’s District 5 seat. District 1 incumbent commissioner Randy Pinocci is uncontested in the general election after he garnered 66% of the vote to K. Webb Galbreath’s 34% in the primary election. No Democrats are running against Pinocci.
Much of the scrutiny that’s been brought to the PSC has arisen from events that came to a head within the past two years. The splashiest of those incidents include a scathing audit of the commission’s books for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 that centered concerns about “an unhealthy organizational culture and ineffective leadership” and a $2.5 million lawsuit spurred by an interpersonal conflict between three commissioners that culminated in an email-leak scandal in 2020. Fallout from that incident contributed to another lawsuit, this one filed by longtime PSC attorney Justin Kraske, alleging he was wrongfully discharged from a 13-year post with the agency for flagging inappropriate conduct related to the email leak, which also contributed to the departure of at least two other PSC employees.
Fielder told MTFP Oct. 14 that many of the cultural and internal control problems flagged in the audit have been addressed through a series of changes she and Brown, who is currently running for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court, spearheaded. Fielder said she worked 70-hour-plus weeks during her first few months with the commission to meet her regulatory duties and advance policy, protocols and strategic planning changes stemming from the audit.
Fielder described the commission as a much better working environment now and said she’s found the work of the PSC a refreshing change from the Montana Legislature, where she served from 2013 to 2020, because partisanship rarely colors the work of commissioners or agency staffers. She said there have been other challenges, though, including keeping the agency fully staffed and providing the kind of administrative structure that’s geared more toward supporting the agency’s internal workings than its regulatory directive.
Repke said he continues to have concerns about the commission and argues that actions sitting commissioners have engaged in the past three months would not be tolerated in private industry. Repke criticized a comment Pinocci made in a September meeting that appeared to threaten Missoula residents with brownouts should electricity become scarce this winter. Repke also expressed frustration with a press release Pinocci and fellow commissioner Tony O’Donnell issued in August suggesting that rolling blackouts were coming for eastern Montana energy customers if state leaders don’t do “all that may be necessary to retain Montana’s last major baseload power plant, the Colstrip generating facility.”
The regulated utility company serving eastern Montana, Montana Dakota Utilities, challenged the commissioners’ assessment, saying MDU has adequate power supply and isn’t anticipating blackouts. (MDU doesn’t obtain power from Coltsrip; NorthWestern Energy, which serves much of central and western Montana, and Oregon- and Washington-based utility companies do, though.)
Another point of scrutiny that’s developed in the race regards the requirements of the job relative to other professional commitments. Bukacek told Kiwanis members in August that she has stopped taking new patients but will keep her medical practice if she’s elected. Repke, who retired from Columbia Falls wood products supplier SmartLam, LLC, May of last year, argues that ratepayers deserve a full-time commitment from commissioners, especially given the job’s $109,000 base salary, among the highest-paid elected positions in state government.
Asked if commissioners in Montana should be duty-bound to commit to the job full-time, a requirement some states impose on their utility board members, Fielder said no, capacity for the job depends on the commissioner and their work ethic. Fielder later emailed a letter to MTFP endorsing Bukacek for the position. In it, she commended Bukacek’s engagement with regulatory matters before the commission and desire to do the commission’s work.
“Her intellectual abilities and work ethic are off the charts, she has a proven track record as a fearless voice for the people, and her training as a medical doctor has honed the type of analytical skills and study habits needed to digest the volumes of complex regulatory data that comes before the commission each week,” Fielder’s letter said.
Repke has also garnered support from someone who’s held the post he seeks. In a letter to the editor, Greg Jergeson, who served as a Democrat on the PSC from 2003 to 2010, said he appreciates Repke’s “common sense approach.”
“I believe his career has prepared him to examine and understand the flood of information and testimony coming his way in contested utility rate cases,” Jergeson wrote. “His opponent doesn’t have that experience nor temperament. I believe John Repke is the only choice for the voters of PSC District #5.”
The commission currently faces several big-ticket items that will have financial ramifications for more than 400,000 Montana households. NorthWestern Energy has submitted a rate case to the commission seeking approval to raise electricity and natural gas rates. Last month commissioners unanimously approved an interim rate increase that will raise the bill for the typical 750 kilowatt-hour-per-month residential energy customer by $11.16 per month, on average. The increase should be reflected on customers’ October bills and is slated to continue through September 2023.
That rate case is only temporarily decided. Fielder said the case docket tops 4,000 pages and that commission staff continue to go through it with a “fine-tooth comb.” NorthWestern’s original application asked for what would amount to a $273 annual increase for 750-kilowatt-hour customers, along with a $91 annual increase in natural gas base rates.
Citing concerns among Montana businesses about a lack of interpersonal skills in the workforce, Miles Community College is looking to quickly expand the number of high schools participating in its latest career development course.
Accelerated spring snowmelt and drought conditions primed northwest Montana to burn, but summer moisture kept fire season in check.
County commissioners say they believe state law requires them to collect at a lower rate than Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Department of Revenue has directed. At stake is $80 million.