Ann Bukacek speaks at a campaign event in Helena in October 2022.
Ann Bukacek speaks at a campaign event in Helena in October 2022. Credit: Amanda Eggert / MTFP

Kalispell physician Ann “Annie” Bukacek, a Republican, has secured the District 5 seat on the Public Service Commission, the state board that regulates monopoly utilities in the power, water, garbage and telecommunications industries, on the strength of a 13-point lead over retired Whitefish executive and Democratic candidate John Repke.

Due to early poll reporting out of Lewis and Clark County, where Repke garnered a 5-point lead over Bukacek, Bukacek trailed Repke through much of Tuesday evening. But Bukacek’s strong showing in Flathead, Teton and Lake counties gave her a 12,034-vote lead over Repke by the time all precincts had reported their results to the secretary of state on Wednesday.

Bukacek did not immediately respond to Montana Free Press’ request for comment by press time Thursday morning.

In a statement emailed by a spokesperson Wednesday evening, Repke lamented the district’s partisan lean and encouraged his supporters to remain engaged with the commission’s work.

“I entered this race to give voters the opportunity to elect someone who has the relevant experience to do the job and the integrity to do it right,” Repke said in the statement conceding the race. “I am grateful for the strong, bipartisan support that I received. In the end, the majority of voters chose to stick with party over all other considerations.

“For those of you who care deeply about our energy future and the regulatory work of the PSC, I ask that you carry your passion for my campaign forward and get involved with matters that come before the PSC.”

At campaign events and on her website, Bukacek called for the state to develop more hydroelectric dams and coal-fired power, arguing that the state’s coal reserves and hydroelectric potential have been underutilized. She’s been critical of solar and wind developments in her assertion that the country is in the midst of a “fake energy crisis based on a fake climate change crisis.”

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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.

She’s also expressed interest in using the commission to exercise oversight of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, which has wound through federal, tribal and state governments for more than a decade before landing at its current, if temporary, home at the Montana Water Court. 

Bukacek, an internal medicine physician with a private medical practice, resigned from a seat on the Flathead City-County Health Board this spring to run for the PSC seat. She’s served in leadership positions with the Montana Pro-Life Coalition and the Montana Shooting Sports Association and is perhaps best known for her positions on vaccination and pandemic public health measures.

During the campaign, Bukacek and Repke offered conflicting assessments of the commission’s recent performance, which has included two lawsuits, a scathing legislative audit and staff retention challenges. At an August luncheon in Helena, Bukacek told Kiwanis members that she didn’t expect to “clean up a corrupt system,” but instead aspires to help the two most recently elected commissioners “make it a better system.”

In responses to an MTFP Election Guide questionnaire, Repke has said that the commission’s recent dysfunction and his concerns about sitting commissioners’ ability and desire to navigate technical regulatory matters inspired his run for office.

Both candidates acquired considerable quantities of campaign cash to bolster their bids for a seat in one of the state’s least understood regulatory bodies.

In the weeks leading to the election, Bukacek loaned her campaign $10,000 to add to the $41,00 she loaned herself earlier in her candidacy. Most of those loans were effectively repaid with later contributions from supporters. As of late October, Repke reported taking in $136,000 in campaign contributions throughout the primary and general election to Bukacek’s $107,000.

When Bukacek  assumes office on the quasi-judicial commission in January, a meaty, technical issue will be awaiting her: a rate case to determine how much NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest monopoly utility, can raise customers’ electricity and natural gas rates. The rate case docket tops 4,000 pages and goes to the heart of the PSC’s statutorily defined role: to balance the interests of captive ratepayers with the financial health of the regulated utilities that many Montanans rely upon.

In September, the five-member commission approved an interim rate hike that increased the average 750-kilowatt-hour customer’s monthly electricity rates by about $11.16 per month. The company’s full ask for the increase would raise the same 750-kilowatt-hour-per-month customer’s rates $273 annually. The company has also asked the commission to approve a $91 annual increase in natural gas base rates, which are calculated based on costs to deliver gas, not the quantities used.

The PSC is expected to hold a hearing on the rate case in April and issue a final decision in the ensuing months. Among other items, NorthWestern is asking the commission to approve a “reliability rider,” which it has described as a “new regulatory mechanism” to help the company shore up the “lag” between an expensive new power plant coming online and the company’s ability to incorporate plant construction costs into customer bills through a rate case process.

Bukacek’s win preserves the PSC’s all-GOP composition, which spans more than a decade. The last time Montana voters sent a Democrat to the commission was in 2008. 

Randy Pinocci, another Republican with a decidedly conservative lean, appeared on Election Day ballots across much of northern Montana. The incumbent in District 1, Pinocci’s bid for a second four-year term was uncontested in the general election. 

Bukacek will join commissioners Pinocci, Tony O’Donnell, Jennifer Fielder and James Brown, who became the commission’s president after his election to the board in 2020. Brown has conceded his race for the state Supreme Court, and is expected to serve the remainder of his PSC term, which ends in 2024. Bukacek will assume the District 5 seat held by termed-out commissioner and former Secretary of State Brad Johnson.

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Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...