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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Tony O'Donnell: 2020 General Election Q&A

Tony O’Donnell is the 2020 Republican candidate for public service commissioner region 2.

Montana Public Radio is gathering information on all statewide general election candidates to publish as a resource for our audience. We asked all the statewide candidates to respond to the following questions via email, limiting their answers to 150 words per question. These are their unedited responses.

Tony O’Donnell is the 2020 Republican candidate for public service commissioner region 2.

What makes you the best candidate to represent your region on the Public Service Commission and how do you stand out from your opponent(s)?

My consistent voting to represent the best interests of ratepayers while simultaneously following state and federal laws designed to keep the utilities healthy enough to "keep our lights on" certainly qualifies me to be retained in this position. The public record clearly shows that I have have put ratepayers first as evidenced by my vote to disallow $28 MILLION of electricity rate increases sought by NorthWestern just last year, after having determined those charges as excessive. The $6.5 million we allowed is the minimummandated by state law. This demonstrates better than any words that I am looking out for the ratepayers instead of favoring the shareholders of utilities.

What experience do you have in understanding the policy and regulation of electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and telecommunication industries? 

My background in owning and operating small businesses and my lifelong dedication to listening to all aspects of an issue without any preconceived conclusions have served the people of Montana very well. This has enabled me to build a reputation of fairness, very good preparation and thinking out of the box. It has been frustrating at times to understand the rules and practices which are an important part of the 'quasi-judicial' nature of the job, like the lawyers telling me to slow down when I see an injustice and want to fix it as soon as possible. The nearly 4 years of paying attention and still getting things done has yielded big returns to the people who voted me into this position.

What would be your top three goals as a public service commissioner and how would you accomplish them?

The greatest need for any commissioner is to read all the mountains of material, listen carefully to all testimony, be bold in asking questions, go where the information leads and respecting persons' intelligence. Many people have been lead to believe that the PSC has the authority to favor one sort of energy production over another. This is completely false. Federal and Montana laws command us to be as objective as possible while achieving 'customer indifference', that is, we are mandated to insure that a customer does not pay anything more/or less for one form of energy than other. Any favoring of wind, solar, coal, etc such as allowing higher prices than those objectively determined is the job of the Congress and the Mt legislature and I have never wavered from that standard. 

What authorities of a public service commissioner do you believe should be used more or less than previous commissioners? Please provide specific examples. 

Again, authorities cannot just be adopted by the PSC; we are clearly hemmed in by state and federal laws and legal procedure (which is sometimes maddeningly slow as mud) but this legal procedure is essential to guarantee the rights of all parties to an issue. I have been devoted to total fairness at all times. Certainly there will always people who see things differently than I but no one can ttruthfully say that I have ever favored one party over the other for any reason except after honest appraisal.

What other issues are important to your campaign? (300 word limit)

The PSC is all about facts, facts and more facts. It dismays me to see that my opponent continuously maintained that I have abused ratepayers by not showing up for nearly half of my official meetings. The official, and very publicly available, record clearly shows this charge to be utterly misleading and factually wrong. There were 41 official PSC work sessions last year. Of those I was physically present for 24; thus the 55% cited by my opponent. As she knows very well, I had 2 major surgeries during the year and was under doctors' instructions to not drive (typical post surgery pain medications). Under these directions I participated in 10 meetings by phone. I was, as usual, fully prepared for them and participated by making motions and voting: clearly officially present. I was excused for 5 meetings due to official out of state travel representing the State of Montana and 2 were for my normal 2 week vacation (in beautiful Whitefish celebrating my 40th Anniversary!). As you can see, any charges that I abandoned my job is absolutely false. I am greatly offended when anyone implies that my constituents are too stupid to look up the facts for themselves and are so easily deceived. An absolute requirement of any commissioner is to stick strictly to the facts in all cases. The further assertion that I have favored utility shareholders at the expense of ratepayers is obviously irresponsible as illustrated by my vote to keep NorthWestern's electric rate increase to just 1.23%, their first rate increase application in 9 years and denying $28 MILLION from what they asked for as being unfair to ratepayers. I have constantly voted to keep the utilities in good enough shape to keep our houses warm and electrified while ratepayers, especially, those on fixed incomes and economically fragile, don't pay an extra penny over what they have to pay. If fairness to all and total dedication to the rule of law is what you expect in a commissioner, then I believe I have earned your vote and confidence. Thank you.

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