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A little-known fact about a little-known agency of state government, the Public Service Commission, is that it owes its creation more than a century ago to a desire to ensure that de facto railroad monopolies were setting fair and reasonable freight rates.

“There were a whole lot of people in Montana whose entire livelihoods depended on the quality and rates of railroad service,” former PSC commissioner Travis Kavulla told Montana Free Press earlier this year in an interview for a story about the commission’s work. “It would have been much, much more important to them than, say, who they elected to a school board, or who they elected for attorney general, or even who they elected to governor.”

Kavulla went on to say that it’s hard to gauge the electorate’s engagement with the commission’s work now, but he would wager it’s generally been growing rather than shrinking. As a reporter trying to keep tabs on the state’s energy and environmental landscape, I found that heartening to hear. The commission’s work is exceedingly technical — the docket for the natural gas and electricity rate increase NorthWestern Energy is currently seeking tops 4,000 pages — but it’s also critically important.

If your electricity, natural gas, water, garbage service or phone service is provided by an investor-owned company, the PSC has a direct bearing on your monthly bills. Its work is also important in energy, economic and climate contexts because it exercises some oversight — though not as much as some commissioners would like, as evidenced by their support of bills to expand the PSC’s realm of influence — in the development of new energy projects. It does this by analyzing financial statements to set the rate structures by which investor-owned utilities recoup their investments in new generation facilities — the gas plant NorthWestern Energy is building in Laurel, for example. The PSC also helps set and shape contract terms when a utility enters into what’s called a “power purchase agreement” to bring power from a wind farm, solar array, hydroelectric dam or battery project into its transmission system.

Despite the importance of the commission’s work, it can be hard to garner basic information about candidates. PSC candidates don’t bombard the airwaves with advertising the way candidates for high-visibility races like the U.S. House do. Republican Ann “Annie” Bukacek and Democrat John Repke, who are squaring off for the District 5 seat representing Lewis and Clark, Flathead, Teton and Lake counties, have appeared together in just one public event since the primary election.

That’s part of the reason MTFP sent both candidates a questionnaire last month: so candidates could share their priorities, experience and motivation for running with voters, in their own words. Unfortunately, we only got a response from one of the two candidates. Bukacek declined to fill out the questionnaire or grant our interview request.

Fortunately for MTFP, she’s a well-known figure in the Flathead. Bukacek and others have posted material hinting at her motivations for running and signaling her priorities if elected. That, and the questionnaire and interview with her opponent, Repke, is largely what we drew on  to write this week’s profile of the race for one of the highest-paid, least-understood elected positions in state government.

We hope you find it — and all our other election-related coverage and resources — helpful as we enter the home stretch toward Election Day.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Photo Credit: Anna Paige/MTFP

A sign posted at St. Peter’s Mission Cemetery, west of Cascade, describes the white crosses above as representing “the many unmarked graves beginning the year of 1866.” The location is one of several historic mission churches in Montana where violinist Megan Karls recorded her latest video album, “Re-envisioned: Montana Composers in Mission Churches,” featuring compositions by Montana composers Phillip Aaberg, Grant Harville and Charles Nichols.

“I want to shine a bit of a light on what is going on in our part of the world, and the history of the mission churches is a really big part of that,” said Karls, a classically trained violinist and symphonic player who grew up in rural northern Wisconsin and now lives in Great Falls. “It’s fun to play in big halls. It’s fun to play in symphonies. But this feels like the most important work that I could be doing right now through the violin.”

Billings arts reporter Anna Paige has the story of Karls’ work and the complex tangle of history that informs it in Montana Free Press this week.

—Brad Tyer, Editor

Happenings 🗓️

Despite a recent court ruling blocking several new election laws, confusion persists in Montana regarding registration deadlines and voter ID laws for the upcoming general election. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen attempted to correct outdated information distributed in a voter info pamphlet by issuing a press release Oct. 18 clarifying that Montanans are allowed to register to vote until 8 p.m. on Election Day. And here at Montana Free Press, we’ve made sure our 2022 Election Guide has all the latest information. In that spirit, here’s a roundup of the key election-related dates for voters to keep in mind.

Oct. 14 — Last Friday was the deadline for county election officials to mail out ballots to absentee voters. If you’re registered absentee, that means you’ve likely already received your ballot or can expect to soon. If you’re not sure, or want to check the status of your ballot, go to the secretary of state’s MyVoter page for more information.

Nov. 4 — After 5 p.m. the Friday before the election, any qualified voter who won’t be able to cast a ballot at the polls due to illness or medical emergency can visit their county elections office in person and request to vote by special absentee ballot.

Nov. 8 — Election Day. Polls open in Montana at 7 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m. Voters can drop off their absentee ballots or, if they’re not registered absentee, vote in person at their designated polling location. The current list of acceptable IDs at the polls includes: a current photo identification with your name (a student ID is acceptable), a voter registration card, a utility bill, a bank statement, or a government document with your name and current address. And a reminder, again: Any eligible Montanan who is not yet registered to vote can still register and cast a ballot at their county election office until 8 p.m. on Nov. 8.

Still have questions about how to vote? Check out the latest updates.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

Verbatim 💬

“Thousands of documents the Secretary of State estimates were relevant to this case appear to have been withheld on the flimsiest pretense and after repeated refusal to respond to plaintiff’s questions about accounting details and digital discovery of documents in lieu of photocopies costing 50¢ per page. Instead, the Secretary of State would have plaintiffs and this court rely on a self-serving affidavit.”

—Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael McMahon in an Oct. 18 order denying Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s request for motion for summary judgment in a class action lawsuit alleging her office wrongfully retained $120,000 in duplicate filing fees charged to Montana businesses in 2020. McMahon chastised Jacobsen’s defense team for attempting to stymie the plaintiffs’ requests for documents outlining her office’s refund policy, calling their answers “evasive and incomplete” and ordering them to respond with the requested materials by Nov. 18.

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Viz 📈

With Montana’s 2022 fire season wrapping up, the state appears to have gotten off fairly lightly this year, with wildfires charring just 134,000 acres of the state, according to data from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

This year’s burn acreage pales in comparison to big fire years of the past — 852,000 acres in 2021, for example, or the whopping 1.3 million acres that burned in 2017 (the year a $74 million firefighting bill helped put state government in a budget crisis).

The state was lightly singed in relation to neighboring Idaho, too. A single fire on the other side of Montana’s southwestern border, the Moose Fire, burned an estimated 130,000 acres near Salmon, Idaho — an expanse nearly as big as the total area burned in Montana.

Montana’s landscape and property owners by no means got off scot free this year, though. The Elmo Fire on the western side of Flathead Lake, for example, burned more than 20,000 acres and destroyed an estimated 8 structures.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Hot Potato 🥔

Anyone who’s covered an election knows there’s really no such thing as “calm before the storm” between Labor Day and Nov. 8. I’d compare these eight weeks to floating on an increasingly turbulent river that might just have a waterfall around the next bend.

Hence the political jargon phrase “October surprise” — a public event or revelation that could influence the outcome of an election at the last minute. Last Friday, such a surprise appeared in the inboxes of some Montana reporters: two ethics complaints filed with the constitutionally created Judicial Standards Commission against Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson, who’s running to retain her seat against attorney James Brown.

The complaints were lodged by Republican political consultant Jake Eaton, who’s spent months coordinating endorsements and spending in support of Brown, the Republican Party favorite, and framing Gustafson as aligned with liberal lawyers and Democratic donors.

Eaton’s complaints doubled down on that characterization, claiming Gustafson should have recused herself from a case over the summer because she had received endorsements from two of the plaintiffs, former Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown and 1972 Constitutional Convention delegate Mae Nan Elligson, as well as financially supported by attorneys Cliff Edwards and James Goetz.

University of Montana law professor Jordan Gross, who sits on the State Bar of Montana Ethics Committee, called Eaton’s use of the judicial standards complaint process “unorthodox.” Motions for a judge’s recusal, she said, are usually made by a party’s lawyer when a case is underway so that a fair trial, if recusal is called for, can be expeditiously delivered.

“The complainant says that while [Gustafson] had an opportunity to recuse herself, she didn’t,” Gross said. “But I questioned the validity of that observation, because the way we give judges and justices an opportunity is to file a motion, to raise the issue through the proper channels. And this is not the proper channel to raise this particular type of issue.”

Gross said complaints of judicial impropriety can be made even after a case is closed. But she said Eaton’s allegations are not particularly specific — they include no evidence that the donations violated campaign finance laws or that Gustafson engaged in a quid pro quo.

“The mere fact of just endorsing somebody doesn’t mean that you expect them to rule for you,” Gross said. “You need more [evidence] than that. The endorsement is not enough.”

Rather, Gross said, the complaint filings seem intended to raise public scrutiny. As we previously reported, Eaton emailed the complaints to reporters the same day ballots started arriving in voters’ mailboxes.

“Typically, you don’t file them and call the media,” Gross told me this week. “This person seems to have accomplished what they want, which was media attention, because here you are talking to me.”

The standards commission’s rules say that “all papers filed herewith and all proceedings before the Commission shall be confidential while pending before the Commission” and that a violation of the confidentiality provisions “may result in summary dismissal of the complaint.” As soon as a case is dismissed or substantiated enough to be filed in court, that lid of confidentiality is lifted.

Eaton strongly disagrees that publicizing his complaints violated the commission’s rules, noting that courts have upheld a complainant’s right to share campaign finance complaints while they’re pending before the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices. If the issue of the Judicial Standards Commission’s confidentiality rules morphs into another lawsuit, MTFP looks forward to covering it.

With that backdrop, let’s circle back to the brilliance of this October Surprise. The Judicial Standards Commission meets about every two months. Its last meeting was in September, about a month before Eaton filed his complaints. The commission will next meet in November, about a week after voters decide who to elect — Gustafson or Brown — to the state Supreme Court.

We’ll be taking the next few weeks one splashy rapid at a time.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda — The Pew Charitable Trusts recently published a report about the importance of — and barriers to — wildlife migrations that marries research with public policy recommendations. One finding that was news to me is that some ungulates transfer their migratory knowledge to younger generations in a learned way, meaning the obstruction of a migratory route can have multi-generation ramifications.

Alex — One of my national sources for a recent in-depth article on Montana’s standardized testing debate circled back this week to share some pertinent new reporting. The story came courtesy of the Hechinger Report, and examined how the move away from test score requirements in college admissions — which got a brief nod in my piece — hasn’t actually led to a meaningful increase in racial or socio-economic diversity on campuses.

Eric — ProPublica published one of the most jaw-dropping quotes I’ve seen this year as part of an investigation into algorithm-based price fixing in big-city apartment complexes. An executive at the center of the story apparently told the outlet’s reporters that property management companies are under-pricing rentals because they had “way too much empathy going on.”

Arren — Do you understand why British Prime Minister Liz Truss resigned after just over six weeks on the job? Or why people were wagering whether or not her tenure would outlast a head of lettuce? I sure don’t — or at least I didn’t until reading this primer by the New York Times.

Mara — Our statehouse reporting colleagues at Lee newspapers this week published an overview of third-party spending in the Montana Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and attorney James Brown. They found that outside groups have pumped about $1.3 million into the race so far, toppling previous records for contributions to a nonpartisan judicial contest. Much of that money came from state and national Republican groups backing Brown and a political action committee for Montana attorneys supporting Gustafson.

*Some articles may be behind a paywall.