(Community News Service) Voters across huge chunks of north and northeast Montana will fill two seats on the body that sets rates for regulated utilities, including NorthWestern Energy, which serves nearly two-thirds of the state’s homes.
Republicans have held all five of the Public Service Commission’s seats since 2012 and hope to keep it that way, but two Democrats are aiming to change that.
District 1, which covers Montana from Toole County east to the North Dakota line and includes Great Falls, Lewistown, Glendive and Sidney, features contestants Doug Kaercher, a Havre Democrat and the city’s finance director, versus Republican Randy Pinocci, a former state legislator from Sun River.
It’s an open seat this year because term limits prevented its former PSC representative, Republican Travis Kavulla, from seeking another term.
Kaercher, married and the father of three grown daughters, is a lifelong Havre resident. His resume in public service includes his current job as Havre’s city clerk and finance director. He has served on Havre’s City Council, as a Hill County commissioner and as an administrative law judge for the Montana Tax Appeal Board. He also served as president of the Montana Association of Counties and is a licensed pilot.
He says he wants push the PSC to consider more renewable energy.
“Montana doesn’t want to be left behind,” he said. “We need to use coal, but also solar and hydro so that we don’t fall behind.”
As a certified mediator, Kaercher believes his experience will bring a fresh outlook to the PSC.
“I want to collaborate between consumers and the commission,” he says. “I feel that everyone can be heard and that everyone can be represented better in the PSC.”
His opponent, Republican Randy Pinocci, points to his experience as a legislator, especially his service on its Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee.
Pinocci was born in Deer Lodge, but now lives in Sun River with his wife and three daughters. He served one term in the Montana Legislature before losing in a lopsided race to fellow Republican Wendy McKamey in the 2016 primary. He won the right to run for the PSC by defeating longtime legislator Rob Cook of Shelby in a four-person primary race.
Pinocci touts his connections to current and past PSC commissioners, saying that gives him an advantage in holding energy companies accountable for rate increases.
In the current campaign, he says he will fight to protect Montana’s utilities from federal overreach. He also argues for rejecting the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe Water Compact, approved by the 2015 Legislature and now before Congress, though the PSC has no jurisdiction over the issue.
The District 5 race
The PSC’s District 5 spans the continental divide to cover Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Lake, Glacier and Pondera counties. In that race, PSC Chairman Brad Johnson is running for a second term against first-time Democrat challenger Andy Shirtliff. Both live in Helena.
Johnson, who describes himself as an “old cowboy,” is a former Montana Secretary of State, serving one term before losing to Democrat Linda McCulloch in 2008.
He quit a 2010 race for the PSC after a DUI conviction and lost a rematch for Secretary of State. He won his PSC seat in 2014, and was later selected chairman.
He said his understanding of the job and its responsibilities gives him an edge over a challenger with no experience. He also he expects the PSC will be looking further into solar and wind development, adding that his isn’t biased in favor of coal, as his opponent argues.
“There is no inherent bias on the part of the commission against renewables,” he said. “The Legislature sets the rules; we are quasi-judicial.”
He said he is the experienced choice for the job, having treated consumers and utilities in a balanced fashion.
Shirtliff, who was born in Butte and raised in Kalispell, has lived across the state. His background includes working for former Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Gov. Steve Bullock, advocating for small businesses. He said he hopes to make a change at the PSC.
“I think Montana could be an energy leader, but the PSC holds back other sustainable energy options to give leeway to coal,” he said. “If the PSC made it more open for other resources, it would cause greater competition between energy sources, which would make better jobs and grow the economy.”
He also sees new issues on the PSC’s horizon, including the role it plays in ride-sharing businesses and even crypto currency, which uses relatively large amounts of electricity.
He has some reforms in mind too, including reducing the PSC from five members to three and improving the public’s understanding of what the commission does.
“The PSC needs to bring transparency,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know what it is, and so a lot of people aren’t being held accountable.”
The Community News Service is a service of the University of Montana School of Journalism.