Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Republicans filing for Montana Public Service Commission

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| March 6, 2024 12:25 AM

Republicans hold all five offices with the Public Service Commission — and as of Friday, only Republicans had filed for three open seats.

However, Sheila Hogan, head of the Montana Democratic Party, said Democrats will “absolutely be on the ballot.”

Filing closes at 5 p.m. Monday, March 11, and Hogan said potential candidates are checking with family members and doing due diligence in advance of any announcements.

“We’ll have very good candidates in all three (districts),” Hogan said.

Seats are open in District 2, generally south-central Montana; in District 3, southwest through central Montana; and in District 4, generally northwest Montana.

The candidates, all Republicans, who have filed so far are the following:

In District 2, Kirk Bushman, of Billings, a former Public Service Commissioner who served from 2013 to 2016;

In District 3, three candidates, state Sen. Jeff Welborn, of Dillon, who has served eight terms in the Montana Legislature starting in 2009 in both the House and Senate; Rob Elwood, of Harlowton, a former councilman who ran for the PSC as an independent in 2020, according to the Bozeman Chronicle; and Suzzann Nordwick, of Butte, who has made unsuccessful bids for the legislature and whose social media includes a Jan. 9, 2021, post that says “takeaways from the 6th in D.C.” with a “We will never concede” image (she could not be reached for comment Friday via voicemail on whether that post reflects her current sentiment); and

In District 4, incumbent Commissioner Jennifer Fielder, of Thompson Falls, who took office in 2021 and serves as current vice president of the PSC.

The PSC regulates monopoly utilities in the state. Commissioners are charged with setting utility rates that are “just and reasonable” and ensure adequate profit to a company and fair rates to customers.

Commissioners serve four-year terms and earn $55.71 an hour, or $115,877 annually.

In the fall, the PSC unanimously approved a controversial contested settlement with NorthWestern Energy that raised residential customer electricity rates 24% from the previous summer and small business rates 25%.

This week, a district court judge said a map of the PSC districts approved by the legislature likely was designed to benefit Republicans and disadvantage Democrats in at least Districts 3 and 5.

However, the judge also found testimony from a mathematician persuasive and unrebutted, and the mathematician said the districts appeared designed to “lock in Republican advantage” in all five districts, as plaintiffs alleged.

Hogan, with the Democrats, said the court’s conclusion that “the map is rigged for Republicans … certainly affects our work as a party.”

“Despite this serious concern, the Montana Democratic Party is confident Montanans are sick of Republican-led rate hikes from the PSC and deserve an alternative on the ballot,” Hogan said in an email.

Republicans have seen significant wins in Montana in recent years including the all-GOP PSC and a supermajority in the 2023 legislature.

Although the judge found the PSC districts are likely unconstitutional, he said the map would remain in place for the time being because the default map that was available would hurt a separate set of voters. But he said he would set an expedited court schedule and expected the plaintiffs, led by Montana Conservation Voters, to win in time for the legislature to redo districts in 2025.