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3 Republicans vying for southeastern Montana PSC seat

Posted at 6:29 PM, May 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 20:29:36-04

Three of the five seats on the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) are up for grabs this year, including the District 2 seat currently occupied by Billings Republican Tony O'Donnell.

The PSC's District 2 covers 10 counties across southeastern Montana, stretching from Carbon and Yellowstone on the west to Fallon and Carter counties in the southeast corner.

O'Donnell has two challengers in the June 2 all-mail primary to see who will advance to the general election in November.

The incumbent stands by his record of standing up for Montana ratepayers, and disputes those who claim the PSC rolls over for the state's largest utility, NorthWestern Energy.

"One of the first cases I was on, Northwestern applied for a $10 million increase in their gas rates. We approved $4 million," said O'Donnell. "Just recently, Northwestern applied in their electric case for a rate increase of $34.5 million. We approved $6.5 million, 80 percent less. I think we're doing a good job representing ratepayers."

O'Donnell won election in 2016 running unopposed in the general after he defeated incumbent commissioner Kirk Bushman in the primary. Bushman is back this year hoping to regain his old seat, but veteran Billings legslator Daniel Zolnikov is also running, which means this race is too close to call.

"I have 30-plus years working in the engineering sector here in Montana," said Bushman. "I've worked with most of Montana's largest energy producers, as well as the largest energy consumers, so I've got a lot of real world experience."

Bushman served four years on the PSC from 2013 through 2016, and said he believes the agency needs a seasoned commissioner, who has a grasp of both federal and state energy laws.

State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is looking to make the jump from the Legislature to the PSC this election year. As chairman of the House Energy Committee in both the 2019 and 2017 legislative sessions, Zolnikov helped rewrite dozens of state energy laws and regulations that were no longer working.

"We're not planning long term and guess who pays for that- energy customers," said Zolnikov. "There's a lot of risk in energy. As power plants are going down, open market costs are going up. If we don't plan, long-term customers pay for that."

Although the Public Service Commission is Montana's smallest state agency, it's been making the biggest headlines of late, including an internal scandal involving stolen emails.

"This personality difference is really like a street fight that they brought into the living room," said O'Donnell. "It has no place there. Take it to district court, take it to the alley behind, do whatever. Vice chairman (Bob) Lake and I have adopted the attitude, have the adults come to the front of room and take charge of this."

Bushman and Zolnikov both believe they have the knowledge and temperament to calm things down on the commission.

"I think it's a great opportunity for voters to restore the proper role of the commission," said Bushman. "Bring some sanity back to the commission, re-instate professionalism and statesmanship."

"They are spending so much time on legal issues and fighting each other, that they're not working on the rate cases in front of them," said Zolnikov. "You've got one job, you need to focus on the job, and again that's long-term planning, there is no long-term planning."

A Public Service Commissioner in Montana gets paid an annual salary of $110,772 and is elected to a four-year term.

Whether it's O'Donnell, Bushman or Zolnikov who emerges as the victor in June's republican primary, that's only half the battle. The winner will face off against retired Billings educator Valerie McMurtrey, a Democrat, in the fall.