By Caron Cooper, PhD
Caron Cooper is an independent candidate for the Montana Public Service Commission District 3 seat in southwest Montana. She is not accepting PAC or corporate funding. Find her on Facebook or at www.caroncoopermtpsc.com
My morning routine typically involves coffee and NPR in the kitchen. In 2014, I began to hear stories about the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) – the five-member board charged with protecting consumers’ interest from privately-owned monopoly utilities – that troubled me.
These stories detailed PSC decisions that ran counter to common sense and consumer trends – such as hobbling efforts to bring alternative energy online, changing the rules for small independent electricity generators, and trying to eliminate public notice of meetings. My background in energy and energy policy, and my commitment to Montanans convinced me that I needed to get more involved in these conversations.
With a degree in mechanical engineering, a PhD in energy and resources and professional experience in the energy industry, some of these decisions simply made no sense to me. I’ve spent the past year doing my homework. My research and attendance at meetings, conferences and tours have revealed disturbing trends and convinced me that I would bring a much-needed perspective and skill set to the PSC.
Over the past year, I identified three trends that appear to have contributed to a decline in objectivity and effectiveness in the PSC: term limits; partisan politics; and accepting donations in past campaigns from one of the biggest monopolies the PSC charged with regulating. I believe these trends go a long way towards explaining why the PSC seems to be working counter to its own mission of protecting Montana consumers
The PSC is currently comprised of five men, all Republicans, with little if any background in utilities, energy or even energy regulation. Curiously, the number of former Montana House members on the PSC has also increased dramatically. From 1975 (the oldest online records available) until the late 1990s, only one PSC member had previously served in the House. Yet by January 2007, every single commissioner had previously been elected to the Montana House.
Add to that the substantial pay increase PSC members got in the 1990s – they now earn $100,000 annually, compared to $10.33/hour as a House member – and it appears the PSC has become a sort of “golden parachute” for Montana politicians, whose retirement is based on their last three years’ income and total years of service.
Partisan politics also seem to have trumped professionalism as this transition has occurred. In 1998, all five PSC seats were held by Democrats. By 2013, they were all Republicans. And rumors suggest well-qualified PSC staffers have lost their jobs due to partisan politics.
This is important because commissioners have often rationalized their inexperience by pointing to the “expert staff” that advises them. Yet one can no longer assume that “expert staff” exists. This, I believe, makes commissioners particularly vulnerable to corporate and partisan influence via lobbying, campaign contributions and sponsored events.
Along those lines, I discovered that three of the present commissioners previously accepted donations from NorthWestern Energy’s (NWE) employee-affiliated PACs to finance past campaigns:
- Roger Koopman (PSC District 3) in his 2004 and 2006 House races;
- Brad Johnson (District 5) in his 2004 and 2012 campaigns for secretary of state;
- And Bob Lake (District 4) for his 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 House races and his 2010 Senate race.
Campaign finance reports also reveal that the energy industry has figured out that the best place for their money is in state House races– the most direct feeder to the PSC. In 2014, NWE’s PACs contributed to 60 House campaigns, double their rate of investment in Senate races. Of these 60 campaigns, 58 candidates were Republicans, two were Democrats. My Democratic opponent, Rep. Pat Noonan (D-Butte), was one of them. Interestingly, Republican Sen. Duane Ankey of Colstrip, where NWE is part-owner of Colstrip Unit 4, sent his check back.
This raises the question: Is someone with long-term ties to NorthWestern Energy (in the form of campaign contributions or family members as employees) more loyal to consumers or to the corporation?
It also underscores the fact that when politics drive the PSC, when former lawmakers and partisan supporters triumph over qualified candidates for PSC seats and staff positions, the potential for industry influence increases and citizens lose.
All Montanans should find this troubling. When partisan politics drives the PSC, citizens lose.