HELENA – In Montana’s only contested state Public Service Commission race this year, three Republicans are competing for the nomination in western Montana’s District 5 – and struggling to create some voter interest in the obscure office.
“So many people have no idea what (the PSC) even does,” says John Campbell, a Kalispell truck driver and one of the three Republican candidates.
The five-member PSC regulates electric, gas, telephone and water utilities in Montana – and trucking, as Campbell is quick to point out.
Campbell is probably the least well known of the three Republicans running in District 5, which covers six counties and stretches from Helena to the Canadian border. Most of its voters are in Helena, Kalispell and Polson, but the district also includes the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier National Park.
The other two Republicans are former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, who unsuccessfully ran for the same PSC seat four years ago, and Derek Skees, a former state legislator from Whitefish who lost a race for state auditor in 2012.
The district’s incumbent, PSC chairman Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, has pancreatic cancer and is not running for re-election.
The winner of the GOP primary on June 3 will take on Democrat Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena in the general election.
District 5 is the only competitive PSC seat this election year. In northern Montana’s District 1, the only other PSC seat up for election, Commissioner Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, is unopposed.
Skees, 45, a building contractor, has been endorsed by Gallagher, and says he hopes that endorsement will help him win the Republican primary.
He says he’s also using his opposition to the Flathead Reservation water rights compact to mobilize support in Flathead and Lake counties – although the tribal water-rights controversy is not affected by the PSC.
“For me, it’s mostly a grassroots campaign, activating the spheres of influence that I have,” he says.
Skees says he worked on some energy issues at the 2011 Legislature, and that as a commissioner, he would work with allies in the Legislature to fix utility, energy and other policy problems that come to light before the PSC.
Johnson, 63, an energy consultant, says he’s a good fit for the job because it’s “quasi-judicial,” requiring commissioners to consider both sides of utility cases in a fair, nonpartisan manner.
“I had to do a lot of that as secretary of state and even on the (state) Land Board,” he says. “We had to sit there and really carefully weigh the facts that came before us. I’ve proven my ability to do that.
“Folks who say they want to use the PSC to push specific agendas are running for the wrong office. If you want to rewrite the law, you ought to run for the Legislature.”
Johnson has been appearing at local Republican events, along with Skees and Campbell, and is running cable TV ads in Kalispell and Helena.
Campbell, 61, drives a truck for a construction firm and audits company drivers for compliance with state transportation regulations. He’s run unsuccessfully twice for the PSC, in 1994 and 2006.
Campbell says he’s long been an opponent of deregulating utilities, and that he’s the only candidate with first-hand experience before the PSC, having argued several trucking cases.
Campbell says he’s been studying NorthWestern Energy’s proposed $900 million purchase of 11 hydroelectric dams, which is before the PSC. The value of each dam, for rate-making purposes, should be considered separately, he says, and if NorthWestern sells some of the dams’ power out-of-state, those revenues should offset any rate increase.
He also says Skees has a thin record on energy issues at the Legislature, and notes that Johnson authorized bonuses for his outgoing secretary of state staff in 2008 that later were rescinded by incoming Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who defeated him in the 2008 election.