HELENA – Democrat Galen Hollenbaugh, running for the Public Service Commission in western Montana’s District 5, says it’s not easy to engage voters in the obscure race – but this year he’s finding a spark of interest.
The five-member PSC, which regulates utilities and sets their rates, just approved NorthWestern Energy’s $870 million purchase of 11 hydroelectric dams, installing a 5 percent electric rate increase for NorthWestern’s 340,000 customers.
Hollenbaugh says that action has raised awareness – and made some voters receptive to his message that the current PSC is merely “rubber stamping” utilities’ rate increase requests.
“Somebody has to stand up for the consumers,” he says. “Somebody has to stand up for ratepayers.”
Hollenbaugh, 46, a state representative from Helena, is opposing Republican and former Secretary of State Brad Johnson in District 5, which stretches from Kalispell to Helena and includes six counties in northwestern Montana.
The two political veterans are vying for an open seat, because incumbent Commissioner Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, is not running for re-election.
District 5 is the only contested PSC race in the state. The other PSC seat up for election this year is northern Montana’s District 1, where Republican Travis Kavulla of Great Falls is unopposed.
Johnson, 63, an energy consultant from East Helena, says the commission’s job is to balance the interests of the consumer with the utility’s ability to make a “reasonable return on their investments.”
“Based on what I’ve seen in (Hollenbaugh’s) ads and comments, he is predisposed to opposing the utilities rather than listening to the arguments and making a decision,” Johnson says. “I don’t think a ‘Just say no’ attitude is what we need on the commission.”
Johnson said he has a record of supporting oil, gas and coal development in Montana, and that increased energy development should make electricity and gas prices go down.
Johnson also said, as commissioner, he would push the PSC to actively oppose the Obama administration’s new proposed rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“(The rules) will dramatically increase electricity costs,” he said. “They will also result in crippling of the coal industry. It’s wrong and we ought not to sit idly by and watch it happen.”
States are supposed to develop their own greenhouse gas rules to comply with the federal guidelines. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has offered proposals he says will not require any coal-fired power plants in Montana to shut down or be curtailed.
Hollenbaugh said the Republican-controlled PSC has approved a 12 percent total increase for NorthWestern electric customers this year, and has granted most increases requested by utilities in the past year or so.
“I think I bring the consumer to the table first,” he said. “It’s the bottom line of the consumer, not the bottom line of the (utility) shareholder, that needs to be considered first. That is the role of the PSC.”
Hollenbaugh said he would have approved the NorthWestern dam purchase, but at a lower price, and that he would have voted against the 6 percent, temporary electric rate increase that the PSC approved for NorthWestern this summer.
Johnson said he, too, favored purchase of the dams, but that he didn’t know enough details about the negotiations to say whether the approved price should be lower. He also said he doesn’t like temporary rate increases, preferring instead to make final rulings, but isn’t sure how he would have voted on the summer increase.