ALERT, Rate Payers Get Ready.
Posted by Hanson (+3190) 11 months ago
Almost fifty years ago, in 1973, as attorney for the Montana Public Service Commission, I appeared and argued before the Montana Supreme Court representing the Commission. The dispute was between the Public Service Commission and the newly installed, via our then new Montana Constitution, Consumer Counsel. It was an original proceeding to determine whether the Commission's performance and procedures under section 8-111, R.C.M.1947, were legally in compliance with the requirements of such statute and requesting an inquiry into constitutional questions applicable to how the Commission was to involve itself with the new constitutional office of the Consumer Counsel.

The office of the Consumer Counsel was created to represent and protect the interests of Montana consumers and citizens, “We the People”--- if you will. The Consumer Counsel was constitutionally established to represent us in governmental proceedings that involve energy policy. The members of the 1972 Constitutional Convention understood that corporations buy their favor with politicians so that they pass laws to assure huge and unwarranted profits to the benefit of the boardroom suits to our detriment. With this in mind they created the Consumer Counsel whose constitutional role is to monitor proposed legislation, participate in the legislative process, and protect and represent us in rate hearings as a watchdog against biased illicit deals.

Now, almost unbelievably, the Republicans have proposed a rule for the 2023 legislative session to wreck the constitutional protections provided by the Consumer Counsel. The proposed rule would ban the Consumer Counsel from taking positions on bills unless the Republican Legislature allows the office to speak. This rule basically says you cannot perform your constitutional duty to protect Montana consumers from our bought and paid for activities on behalf of energy corporations unless we first okay same. Who would propose such a rule? Republican Senator Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, son of former NorthWestern Energy chief lobbyist, John Fitzpatrick, is who proposed it and his fellow Republicans have indicated they are in favor of it. It is time for all Montanans to contact their representatives in opposition to any such proposal. Our utility bills are unreasonably too high now.
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Posted by Karen L. Morris (+2287) 11 months ago
For whatever reason, the Glendive Ranger Review seems to be ahead of the Star with coverage on this one, too. (My apologies if it is hidden deeper within the Star and I've missed it.) It may be worth noting that, after I posted my Ranger comment last time, the Star did include coverage albeit from the Ranger's reporter.

From Sunday's Ranger:

In the early 1970s, frustrated with the corporate boot that dominated and bullied Montanans, the state’s people rose up. Led by ordinary citizens like Pastor George Harper of Helena, local historian and mother of six Louise Cross of Glendive and League of Women Voters leader Dorothy Eck of Bozeman, they crafted what is now recognized as a worldrenowned Constitution.

Among many important motivations was their conviction that in order to free Montanans from corporate dominance at the expense of workers, farmers and ordinary citizens, the state’s people must have an independent advocate in the regulation of public utilities. They needed a consumer counsel — a well resourced and equipped advocate that was not beholden to the elites and the giant power companies.

The result is Article XIII, Section 2 of the Montana Constitution which states: The legislature shall provide for an office of consumer counsel which shall have the duty of representing consumer interests in hearings before the public service commission or any other successor agency. The legislature shall provide for the funding of the office of consumer counsel by a special tax on the net income or gross revenues of regulated companies.

Since its creation, the Montana Consumer Counsel has been a consistent voice protecting consumers from the abuses of monopoly utilities.

As a result, the office of the Consumer Counsel has made many powerful enemies in the utility industry. Primary among them is NorthWestern Energy.

In recent years, North-Western has been aggressively trying to get out from under the financial burden of their remaining coal plants in eastern Montana. Their latest effort is to get the cost of these old, expensive plants rolled into consumers’ electric bills. This would raise our electric rates, while guaranteeing NorthWestern a nice rate of return and allowing stockholders to avoid the costs of retiring the plants and cleaning up the environmental damage they leave behind.

The Montana Consumer Counsel has been standing in the way, joining with consumer advocates in testifying against various legislative schemes to force ratepayers to pay for these old, expensive coal plants. So far, NorthWestern’s scheme has failed, in large part because of the Montana Consumer Counsel.

Now, the new Republican supermajority is already out of the gate, even before the gavel has convened the 2023 session, with a brazen assault on ordinary Montanans and their pocketbooks. Senator Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls is trying to muzzle the Consumer Counsel through legislative rulemaking. In obvious contradiction to clear Constitutional language, Sen. Fitzpatrick’s new rule would require the Consumer Counsel to ask permission of a legislative committee to support or oppose legislation.

There is a lot to be disturbed about in Fitzpatrick’s ploy, but perhaps the worst thing is his complete disregard for the Constitution and his effort to portray an independent, unbiased, constitutionally created agency as simply beholden to the whims of a legislative committee.

We hope that a majority of legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, will not allow this blatant assault on Montana’s citizens, their pocketbooks and our State’s Constitution.

Terry Minow is the chairwoman of Big Sky 55+, a state-wide organization that advocates for older Montanans.
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