Montana's 2020 election
Montana's 2020 election
The Montana Free Press guide
Democrat for Public Service Commission
McMurtry, of Billings, is a retired P.E. and special education teacher. She was educated at Montana State University.

Key coverage in the race for Public Service Commission

Race profile: Six candidates vie for three Public Service Commission seats

With one incumbent seeking reelection and two open seats, November's election will bring new leadership to the troubled regulatory agency at the heart of Montana’s energy politics
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Campaign finance

No campaign finance data compiled for this race at this time.

On the issues

Issue statements were solicited from active candidates via a written questionnaire before the June primary election. Answers were lightly edited for punctuation and spelling.

How would you assess the performance of the current Public Service Commission?

They have failed the voter/ratepayer who elected them. The PSC is to protect ratepayers from unfair and unnecessary rate increases by monopoly utilities, NorthWestern Energy in particular. In the 12 years of a Republican majority they have not seen a rate hike they didn't like from NWE. The commissioners allow the utility to not disclose information that is in the public domain. It is called the Public Service Commission, not the Corporate Service Commission. They appear to be serving the shareholders of NWE rather than voters who elected them. I will put the “public" back into the PSC.

They also have an accountability issue of not showing up for meetings. They were elected to show up at meetings, to speak up for the ratepayers, and to stand up to NorthWestern Energy. They have failed all of these.

The chaos of the commission because of the infighting and spying on each other has resulted in a dysfunctional PSC. They need to be replaced.

Utility regulation is highly technical work that involves complex legal and engineering issues. What experience do you have that makes you confident you’ll be able to effectively parse detailed briefing materials and fairly evaluate competing arguments from business representatives and environmental advocates?

There is a highly educated, professional staff of approximately 30 that studies the issues that come before the PSC. These scientists, energy specialists and attorneys that make up the staff then advise the PSC. The current PSC often makes decisions that conflict with the professional recommendations of the staff without justification.

I am a retired educator who listens, evaluates and problem-solves. As an educator I have always had to read and research best practices for teaching my students. I would use those skills to make decisions in the best interests of the parties, based on the information and recommendation of the PSC staff.

As a regulatory agency, it is vital that members of the PSC listen to all sides, ask questions and arrive at decisions. I would also rely on my knowledge gained from discussions with colleagues and staff to disseminate the information and arrive at a conclusion and decision.

In addition to energy companies, the PSC regulates telephone companies, garbage haulers and passenger motor carriers. There has been some discussion in recent years about adding hospital oversight to the commission’s responsibilities as well. Do you think the PSC has appropriate regulatory scope?

As the world is quickly changing, becoming more technical and integrated, it is necessary to be a bit of a visionary when dealing with energy, technology, and transportation. Service, price and safety are my concerns with the utilities that the PSC currently regulates and oversees.

I think that with the COVID-19 pandemic, health care has taken over as a world concern. Certainly the state’s hospitals and clinics need an agency to manage equipment, personal protective equipment, and care for when this situation recurs. I do not think it should be the PSC's jurisdiction. They have enough utilities to regulate, which the current commissioners have failed to adequately do.

Any hospital oversight committee should have medically trained staff as a criteria for being appointed. It should NOT be a partisan position, just as I believe that the PSC should also be nonpartisan.

Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on climate change considerations?

Absolutely not! The 20-year plan of NorthWestern Energy makes no mention of renewables, which the states bordering Montana are beginning to integrate into their power grids. Wind energy, hydro, solar all are energies of the future, and they need to be properly studied and assessed. In a “hot mike” situation after a meeting last fall, the chair of the commission was overheard saying that he doesn't like renewables. That narrow and closed-mind approach is backwards and wrong.

The PSC needs to be forward thinking and visionary in its outlook. All types of energy needs to be evaluated and given consideration. Renewables are getting less expensive to produce as well as store. Any five-year plan and beyond needs to consider integrating them into current and future use.

Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on preserving the economic benefits of coal generating plants in Colstrip and Sidney?

No! The PSC has turned a blind eye to the high cost of coal energy. They are not considering the cost to the 374,000 Montana ratepayers who get their electricity from NorthWestern Energy.

The Lewis and Clark coal-fired plant owned by MDU in Sidney, Montana closed in January, 2020. MDU did this as a cost saving move due to the expense of coal generated electricity.

Coal is the most expensive energy and it will only continue to get more so. The problem with the current PSC is that they are prejudiced against renewables. The PSC could and should be doing more to require NWE to consider integrating renewables into their 20 year energy plan. The PSC has used outdated evaluations of renewable energy in their rulings.

Stay tuned for more

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