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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Two Democrats Enter Public Service Commission Race

Graphic: Montana Public Radio News, Politics

Veteran Democratic lawmaker Pat Noonan has entered the race for a seat on the state’s currently all-Republican Public Service Commission, the board that oversees Montana’s utility and transportation companies.

Noonan, a social worker in Butte,  is term-limited out of his post as a state representative, so he decided to run for the seat now held by Republican Roger Koopman, in order to, as he sees it, give the consumers more of a voice on the five-member commission.

"Decisions seem to be being made for political reasons instead of consumer reasons, instead of protecting the ratepayer reasons.”

Noonan says the commission’s call for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearings on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes’ purchase of Kerr dam is just one example of a decision made with politics, rather than consumers, in mind.

“Wading into this court case about the Salish Kootenai dam. The PSC really has no place there, but that seems like a political motivated move. Another example would be, the PSC voted to allow the hedge fund company in Missoula that owns the water company to shield their executives’ pay from ratepayers, and then at the same time, they vote to take away all incentives for utility companies to come to your house and they would put weather stripping around your windows and your doors and check your lightbulbs, and help you be able to conserve energy. None of those seem like decisions that are made with what's best for the consumer in mind."

Incumbent Roger Koopman did not respond to our request for comment, but we did get in touch with Noonan’s challenger in the Democratic primary, Caron Cooper. Cooper runs the non-profit Community Closet thrift stores in Livingston. Like Noonan, she says she’s running because the Public Service Commission has gotten a little too close to the utilities it’s supposed to regulate.

“You know, you can't go to a conference without the lunch been provided by NorthWestern Energy for example, so sometimes you get lobbied in small ways," Cooper says. "Sometimes you get lobbied by a PAC from NorthWestern Energy that's from the employees and you can actually get a campaign contribution. That's legal. I just kind of view that as maybe having a little closer ties to the industry you regulate than one should.”

But Cooper says electing Pat Noonan is not the solution, since Noonan has taken contributions from utility interests in the past, such as a donation from the NorthWestern Energy Employees PAC in his 2014 house re-election race.

“So it’s all pretty cozy," says Cooper. "I think everybody knows that. Nobody wants to call attention to it.”

Cooper and Noonan will face off in the Democratic primary, currently set for early June. Theirs is the only contested race in the primary for a seat on the PSC, though two other seats are open. Those seats are currently held by Republicans Bob Lake and Kirk Bushman.

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