Montana’s Public Service Commission has a proposal to reduce its public responsibility.
The commission has proposed to be allowed to approve utility rate increases without giving the public notice of the rate increase and without holding a public hearing.
The PSC proposal is House Bill 42, which would change present law to allow the PSC to skip the requirement to announce a public hearing on proposed rate increases in a general circulation newspaper, and to hold a hearing. HB42 would instead allow utilities to send any kind of written notice with customers’ bills saying they have the opportunity for a rate hearing. If no customer requested a hearing, the PSC could approve the rate increase without holding a hearing.
This proposal is antithetical to the right of public participation guaranteed in Montana’s constitution. The constitution does not require citizens to request their rights, they already have the right to participate. Furthermore, the right to participate is predicated on the right to be informed. Certainly, the customers of a utility have a direct stake in prices they will pay. However, their neighbors, community leaders and businesses also have interest in what utilities are charging. The public has an interest in seeing how the PSC is doing the job that taxpayers are paying them well to do.
At a hearing before the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee on Jan. 9, Public Service Commissioner Bob Lake repeatedly said that HB2 would reduce costs for “small” utilities.
However, there is nothing in the language of HB42 that says it applies only to “small” utilities. It apparently would apply to even the state’s largest regulated utility, NorthWestern Energy.
Lake told the committee that public notice can be “a waste of resources” and that “sometimes there is no need to announce the specific time and place of a hearing.” He said that customers would be more likely to read a letter from their utility than a newspaper notice.
Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, questioned whether direct-mail would be cheaper than a newspaper notice.
In response to a question from Rep. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, PSC staff attorney Jason Brown said HB42’s “notice” could be included with a bill.
How many of us read every line on every piece of paper in every utility bill we get?
The PSC wrongly suggests that the public’s constitutional right to know can be upheld by providing not a hearing, but only the chance to ask for a public hearing. The PSC wrongly proposes to diminish the right to participate by requiring the public to know – without public notice — in advance that they or their neighbors are facing a rate increase on a publicly regulated utility.
There are public hearings where no member of the public shows up. But that does not mean that the PSC can just skip the hearing. The PSC has a duty to communicate with, inform and engage the public. Sometimes that means people will show up at a meeting; sometimes it means that people know what the PSC is doing and have no comment. The right to participate is a bed rock for building and maintaining Montanans’ trust in their government.
We call on the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee to stand up for the public’s right to know. We ask the committee to bury HB42, a bad idea that was exposed by this committee at its Jan. 9 public hearing.