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Western Montana race for PSC takes shape as Lake files for reelection

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Bob Lake, R-Hamilton

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The incumbent Montana Public Service commissioner representing the district that includes Missoula and Ravalli counties launched his reelection campaign on Wednesday, looking to sit for another term.

Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, is set to square off against Mark Sweeney, a Democrat and former fish hatcheries manager from Phillipsburg.

“Energy consumers will face much hardship in the near future if regulators don’t provide strong leadership and resolve to protect low cost, reliable energy services,” Lake said. “I promise the people of Montana that I will strive to do just that throughout a second term on the PSC.”

Lake served 10 years in the Montana Legislature before winning a seat on the PSC in 2012. During his tenure, the PSC oversaw NorthWestern Energy’s purchase of 11 hydroelectric dams. Lake said the purchase brought stability to the price Montana consumers pay for electricity.

But Lake’s tenure also has included the city of Missoula’s efforts to purchase Mountain Water Co., a process in which the PSC has been closely involved. Attorneys for the city have claimed that the PSC denied the city its due process rights and wrongfully granted a rival water buyer special protections.

That rival buyer – Liberty Utilities Co. – later announced that it had purchased Mountain Water without the PSC’s approval. The PSC said it was surprised by the announcement and it has since filed a complaint in District Court levying fines against Mountain Water and Liberty.

Lake said the PSC doesn’t care who owns Mountain Water, only that Missoula ratepayers are fairly treated. He believes the case will end up going back to court.

“It’s easy to criticize the actions of a regulatory body like the PSC when you haven’t been in the trenches, contemplating the decisions the commission must make,” Lake said. “It takes real persistence and experience to understand the complexities of every situation the commission finds itself, and I am confident that my time on the PSC will serve Montana consumers better than the ideologically driven, pie-in-the-sky agenda put forth by others who currently seek this office.”

Sweeney, who announced his candidacy last month, remains unsatisfied with the PSC’s recent performance on several fronts, including the way it handled the Mountain Water case. He shrugged off Lake’s statement as the “typical corporate answer.”

Sweeney
Mark Sweeney, D-Phillipsburg

Sweeney, a former Anaconda-Deer Lodge County commissioner, also believes the state can find ways to embrace the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan – something Republican members of the PSC have called “discriminatory” and “devastating.”

“I consider myself a pragmatic candidate who is motivated by one thing and one thing only, and that’s that consumers are represented well and treated fairly, especially as Montana’s Clean Power Plan is discussed and we phase out of coal,” Sweeney said.

“Ideologically, we’re very different,” Sweeney said of Lake. “But change is coming and we need to prepare for that change to lessen the effects on the state’s tax base and employment.”

Lake, who’s traveling to Glendive next week to hear a proposed 21 percent rate increase by Montana-Dakota Utilities, believes it’s too soon to close Colstrip. He said the proposal would be devestating to Montanans, raising the price they pay for electricity.

He said power distribution would suffer, and large enterprises would be left without electricity.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in that particular issue,” he said. “If Montana was only dealing with its own internal consumption and generation, we could abide by the Clean Power Plan because we have the hydro.”