Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Montanans will keep choosing Public Service Commissioners at the ballot box, but some voters might soon be in new districts.

A tally of the progress of bills introduced in the 68th Montana Legislature counts 825 transmitted to the second chamber prior to the deadline for general bills to meet that milestone.

House Bill 755, which would have transitioned Public Service Commissioners from being elected to being appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, was not among those. However, Senate Bill 109, to redraw PSC districts, will move forward.

The House Legislative Administration Committee turned down the bill to appoint PSC members in a 5-11 vote, with Democrats in favor of it and Republicans against it.

The bill was subsequently tabled.

Lead sponsor Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, had argued the bill would bring technical expertise to the commission, which regulates monopoly utilities in Montana. HB 755 was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats.

Prior to the vote, Rep. Kenneth Walsh, R-Twin Bridges, said he liked the idea to require stricter qualifications for commissioners, but he didn’t like the idea of the governor making appointments, so he couldn’t support the bill.

The current commission is made up of five Republicans elected by district to four-year terms.

Although the bill to appoint commissioners didn’t advance, SB 109, to redistrict the PSC, passed third reading 30-20 in the Senate and heads to the House.

Sponsor and Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, told the Senate the map would put 20 House districts in each of the five PSC districts. The newly written map of House districts was designed to have districts “as equal in population as is practicable” and generally within plus or minus 1% deviation.

PSC districts have been out of proportion, and in March 2022, a three-judge panel “reluctantly” imposed a new map for last year’s election. The districts had been drawn in 2003, and the panel found the “malapportioned” boundaries to be unconstitutional.

However, the judges said the Montana Legislature has the authority to draw and implement maps, and the court’s fix was in place temporarily, only until the legislature adopted its own map.

“This remedy is not permanent, however, and remains subject to the Montana Legislature’s power to draw and implement its own constitutional map,” the order said.