On Friday’s Talk Back show on Newstalk KGVO, Democrat Public Service Commissioner candidate Monica Tranel, one of three Democrats running to oust Republican incumbent Bob Lake.

One of the comments Tranel made during the hour long interview was of a rate hike allowed by the Public Service Commission for Northwestern Energy to raise their rates to consumers during their normal Tuesday work session that was not streamed, as is the custom by the PSC.

“Just this week on Tuesday, under the cover of darkness, because it was not publicly made available like every other work session, this one was not video or audio streamed, Northwestern Energy approved a $6.5 million rate increase, so your bill is going to go up again, and that’s why I’m asking you to vote for me in District Four,” said Tranel.

KGVO reached out to incumbent PSC District Four commissioner Bob Lake and asked about the issue.

“We did have some technical difficulties recording the session, but the transcript is available on the PSC website,” said Lake. “During the session, what they did was change a request for a roughly $30 million increase,” said Lake. “They (Northwestern Energy) have not had a public hearing on a rate increase for the past eight years, but they negotiated down to roughly about a $6 million increase. It sounds like a lot of money, but when you spread it out over all the rate classes and the number of customers that they have it comes out to between 1.2 and in some cases up to about a 2.3 percent increase, which is very minimal.”

Tranel alleged that the PSC has allowed several rate increases without challenging them on behalf of Montana’s consumers.

“Part of the reason why I am running is that the current commission, they are all Republicans, have absolutely abandoned free market principles, and they have abandoned our individual rate payers,” she said.

Lake said there are some rate increases that are not subject to Public Service Commission authority by statute, and one of those is the issue of passing on property tax increases directly to consumers.

“That, we can’t do anything about,” said Lake. “Because it is in law that says that any tax increases are passed straight on to the rate payer. The utility itself does not pay those. It’s all on the backs of those rate payers. It’s one of those challenges, and coming from the tax committee in the legislature, I have been frustrated with it forever, and there’s not a darned thing I can do about it.”

Lake also addressed Tranel’s comment about the fact that all five of the current Public Service Commissioners are Republicans, he asserted that the work they do is not political in nature.

“Quite frankly, it’s about as non-political as you can imagine,” said Lake. “We govern under a set of laws by which we work strictly on the facts presented to us, and we cannot advocate, we cannot modify, we cannot chuck someone out, nor can we encourage someone new.”

Lake also addressed the increase in consumer rates when Northwestern Energy purchased the hydroelectric plants in 2011 from PPL Montana.

“They did purchase the hydros (hydroelectric plants),” said Lake. “When you look at the total hydro costs compared to building that and it was well within range. The cost of new construction was $2,300 to $2,400 per kilowatt and the hydros were bought for about $1,960 per kilowatt, and that’s a one hundred year investment.”

Tranel appealed to voters that she would advocate for Montana consumers.

“Montana went from having one of the lowest costs of electricity, your bills were some of the lowest in the country,” she said. “Now, they are some of the highest because of what has happened since 2008. I am here for my ratepayers and my clients and to defend Montanans.”

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