Voters narrowed their choices for new leadership on utility bills Tuesday, choosing candidates in three of Montana’s Public Service Commission districts.
In races from Missoula to Billings, Republicans nominated three candidates in contested primaries. Will Deschamps was leading in northwest Montana, which includes Libby and Missoula. James Brown was winning in the Southwest, which includes Butte and Bozeman. Incumbent Tony O’Donnell was winning the southern district, which includes Billings and Miles City. The only contested Democratic primary was in northwestern Montana, where Monica Tranal was winning with early returns as of 10 p.m.
Montana’s five-member Public Service Commission is a quasi-judicial body created by the Legislature to balance a monopoly utility’s right to a fixed return on investment with the consumers’ right to a reasonable price and reliable service. The only requirement for the job is that candidates be of voting age. The current salary for commissioners is $109,000 a year.
The decisions made by the PSC have lasting impacts on utility customers and Montana’s economy. As monopoly utilities acquire power plants and infrastructure, their customers are committed to long-term debt to pay for those assets, while also paying for maintenance, operations and repairs. It’s the PSC that determines what that debt burden should be. A bad decision can leave customers paying hundreds of millions of dollars more for assets, plus interest, than what the assets are worth. That’s money not being spent elsewhere in the economy.
There were two multi-candidate Republican races. In southern Montana, where incumbent O’Donnell was winning PSC District 2 with 9,055 votes, there was a rematch with former commissioner Kirk Bushman, whom O’Donnell unseated in the 2016 primary after three of Bushman’s fellow commissioners opposed his re-election. The third in the race is Daniel Zolnikov, a state legislator who was chairman of the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. Bushman was runner up in early returns, with 8,190 votes, in a race where the future of Colstrip Power Plant and its supporting community played a key role. All three candidates live in Billings. The district covers 10 counties from Carbon County to the North Dakota state line. Zolnikov had 7,799 votes.
The District 2 Democratic candidate, Valerie McMurtry, was uncontested and advances to the general election.
O’Donnell was the only current commissioner seeking re-election….