Viewpoint: Attack on Montana Consumer Counsel is revenge by utility lobby
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 world-renowned 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, NorthWestern 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.