MTPR

Hydropower Deal Divides PSC Hopefuls Hollenbaugh, Johnson

Oct 17, 2014

Northwestern's plan to purchase 11 dams in Montana, including Black Eagle Dam, has split the PSC candidates.
Credit Northwestern Energy

Here’s a question that might help you choose between two rivals for a seat on the board that regulates Montana’s biggest power utility.

What’s your take on the Public Service Commission’s approval of NorthWestern Energy’s purchase of $870 million worth of hydropower dams?

The deal would add an extra $5 a month to ratepayers’ bills and is a key point of contention between former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson and a former legislator Galen Hollenbaugh.

Both Helena men hope to replace Commissioner Bill Gallagher, a Republican, in the PSC’s District 5, which stretches from the Canadian line to the state’s capital city.

Hollenbaugh, a Democrat, said he would have voted against the purchase because it is unfair to ratepayers.

“I won’t be a rubber stamp for corporate rate increases,” he said. “It has been that way for at least four years, and it’s time for a change. It’s a little disheartening.”

He said the PSC should have negotiated a smaller rate increase for consumers and pushed more risk on the corporation.

Johnson, the Republican in the race, backs the PSC’s decision.

“I think the terms of the deal certainly were fair,” he said. “We’ll never know whether or not the commission could have pushed harder. By the time you find that out you’ve driven the utility from the table and it is too late. My sense is they made the right decision.”

Johnson, 62, ran for this seat four years ago and narrowly lost to Gallagher in the primary. The defeat came shortly after he was pulled over for a DUI on the way back to Helena after visiting friends in Bozeman. He says the experience was a life-changing one that he has learned from.

Before that, he served four years at Montana’s Secretary of State. He lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Linda McCulloch in 2008, and he lost a rematch four years later. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000 and for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

A lifelong Republican, he volunteered for President Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and was a staffer for former Congressman Ron Marlenee during the mid-1980s. He’s been a consultant, and once managed Gallatin County’s fairgrounds.

Johnson’s political mantra sounds simple: less government.

“I want to see as little as government involvement in the daily lives in Montanans as possible,” he said. “I don’t believe that government ought to be the first place you go to gain the redress of an issue.”

Hollenbaugh, 46, is running his first campaign for an office other than the Montana Legislature, where he’s served since 2006. He was a vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the 2012 session. He works as bureau chief in Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry.

He said he is proud of his ability to work across party lines to get meaningful deals done. He says a Democrat’s perspective would be valuable on a PSC whose current members are all Republicans.

“I would bring a little ballast to the committee,” he said. “I know I don’t have a reputation as standing as a partisan hack. The partisan rancor has crept into the state. It wasn’t like this before.”

Both candidates said they plan on being full-time commissioners if they are elected to the job that pays over $94,000 a year. Commissioners serve four-year terms.

Also running for the PSC this year is Republican Commissioner Travis Kavulla, who is seeking re-election. He faces no opponent in his bid to represent the PSC’s District 1, which stretches from just west of Shelby to the North Dakota border.

Kavulla, a former journalist, cast the lone vote opposing NorthWestern’s hydropower purchase, saying ratepayers could have negotiated a better deal.

--By PEREGRINE FRISSELL
UM School of Journalism