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under the supervision of Professor Dennis Swibold. They may be used without charge by any news publication, provided editors retain the students’ bylines. Please contact Professor Swibold (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions. You can also find this story and others on the upcoming election at www.montanaschoice2008.blogspot.com.
Rivals Mood, Gutsche Clash in PSC District 4
By MATT MCLEOD Community News Service UM School of Journalism Republican incumbent Doug Mood said he wants another term on the state’s Public Service Commission for two reasons: to keep energy bills low and to keep Democratic challenger Gail Gutsche from getting the job. Mood said in a telephone interview that his most important responsibility on the fiveperson PSC was to “put pragmatism ahead of politics” in bringing Montanans affordable energy and said the committee had no room for “Gutsche’s agenda.” “This is no place for ideologues,” Mood said. Gutsche said she resents Mood’s comments and that she isn’t running to play politics. “The voters can decide who is ideologically motivated,” Gutsche said. “I’m running because what we’re doing about energy isn’t working.” The PSC regulates public utilities by selecting private companies to provide electric, natural gas, telephone, transportation, water and sewage services to the state and governing the rates each provider can charge. The board evaluates applicants like a banker evaluates someone applying for a loan – scrutinizing their financial histories and projecting the long-term effects of rate increases. District 4, one of five PSC districts, covers seven counties: Lincoln, Sanders, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, Granite and Ravalli. Gutsche said Mood’s voting record in the Montana Legislature helped set the table for rising energy costs. She blamed Mood and fellow Republicans for voting to deregulate energy in 1997, a policy she called “a colossal disaster.” “We wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for Doug Mood and his Republican cronies,” Gutsche said. According to the latest federal Energy Information Administration report, the average Montana household paid $67.50 for electricity in 2006. That’s well below the national average of $95.66 and cheaper than nearby Washington, Oregon, North Dakota and South Dakota. Still, energy rates have steadily risen since Montana’s Legislature privatized electricity and allowed the Montana Power Company to get out of the energy business. Though often overlooked, this year’s PSC races have added significance with a
renewed focus on energy. The PSC is in the midst of one of its most controversial energy cases. Northwestern Energy paid $187 million for the Colstrip 4 power plant last year and wants to sell ratepayers a long-term share of its power for $407 million. The company says the figure is market value; Montana's Consumer Counsel says consumers should pay far less than that. The committee won't make a decision until its work session on Oct. 27 at the earliest, according to PSC lawyer Al Brogan. Gutsche said she's looking into whether the deal is legal, and called the case “one of the main reasons I’m running for office.” Mood said because the verdict is still out, he couldn’t comment on the case. Though he did add it “had the potential to change energy delivery in the state.” Many of the state races this year are shaping up as showdowns on energy regulation. Democrats generally favor long-term, renewable, alternative energy solutions like wind and solar; Republicans have focused on extracting more coal and oil, citing the immediate price crises and security concerns over foreign oil dependence. Democrats already control three of the five PSC posts and Democratic challengers hope to give Mood and fellow Republican Brad Molnar a run for their money. Molnar, who represents southeast Montana’s District 2, faces Billings Mayor Ron Tussing. Gutsche said Mood’s hands-off views on big oil and coal companies compromises progress toward “leaner, cleaner and greener energy.” “I’m the candidate willing to look at new ideas for doing energy cheaper for Montanans,” Gutsche said. “He (Mood) wants to maintain the status quo.” She also called Mood’s vote to block the operation of a new energy-efficient taxi company in Missoula “irresponsible leadership.” Eventually approved, Green Taxi has been a financial success that hasn’t bankrupted competitors as Mood suggested it would, she added. “I can’t think of one reason why he would vote against a company that provides clean, efficient transportation,” Gutsche said. In January, Mood, a former Seeley-Swan lumber executive, accused Democratic commissioners of ignoring the law when they rejected Mood’s proposal to deny Green Taxi owner Mick Murray an operating license, calling the vote “fatuous and piffling.” But Mood broke with Molnar in voting for the Judith Gap wind farm, the state’s first large commercial wind energy venture. He said the vote is proof he doesn’t toe the party line. “I vote based on the wisdom of the decision,” Mood said. He also points to his vote to reject Babcock & Brown Infrastructure’s bid to buy NorthWestern Energy. The Australia-based investment firm has seen its stock prices plummet over the summer, hitting a record low in August. According to Bloomberg, BBI shares were trading at $1.25 when the company applied for the buyout in Oct. 2006; as of Friday, the stock was trading at 25 cents. Mood also said his good relationship with Democratic Commissioners Greg Jergeson, Bob Raney and Ken Toole shows he avoids partisan politics. Yet on his campaign Web site, Mood blasts the committee members as “so bought into the agenda of the environmentalists, they are happy to pass millions of dollars of costs onto the ratepayers to accommodate the greens and the green agenda.”
Mood said he’d support legislation to provide Montanans with “full knowledge” of what is the cheapest energy available, regardless of its supposed environmental impact. Overseeing public utilities is a delicate business. By law, the PSC has to keep rates down while giving utility businesses just enough incentive to provide their services at a profit. Mood is proud of his grasp of the ins and outs of rate-setting. He said he wouldn’t pretend he had an extensive background when he took office, but argued that after four years his experience is a proven commodity. “(The job) is very, very technical,” Mood said. “It’s a big risk to hand the reigns to someone off the street.” Gutsche noted that as a former colleague of Mood’s in the Legislature, she’ll be plenty seasoned for the post if she wins. “I have the exact same experience he had when he took office,” Gutsche said. -30-