Billings Gazette, Oct. 17, on legislating from the Montana PSC:
The Montana Public Service Commission doesn’t have power to decide which laws or what parts of laws it will enforce. The legislature and governor make the laws, not the five commissioners.
Yet for several years, the PSC has sided with NorthWestern Energy in repeatedly exempting the state’s largest utility from a lawful requirement to purchase power from small, renewable energy projects. Gazette reporter Tom Lutey told readers about NorthWestern getting another pass on compliance in a front page story on Oct. 3.
NorthWestern says that Gazette report is wrong, and a company executive gives NWE’s viewpoint in a guest opinion today. The Gazette stands by Lutey’s story, which is supported by the written and spoken comments of two commissioners who dissented in the PSC order.
Both Vice Chairman Travis Kavulla and Commissioner Roger Koopman found that NorthWestern failed to take a reasonable step to comply with the law and, therefore, should be penalized for non-compliance.
In a written dissent, Kavulla noted that NWE has sought and received waivers on this Community Renewable Energy Projects requirement since 2012. Back then, NorthWestern requested proposals for CREPs that could be built and operational within 18 months. Bids were received, but none that could be operational in that time frame. The PSC told NWE that it should consider projects that couldn’t be completed in one year for compliance with the next year’s requirement.
But instead, NWE persisted in saying it wanted only projects that could be built within 18 months, even though the company had said such projects take at least two full years to build. Kavulla noted that projects NWE rejected for 2015 could have come on line in 2016, but the company did not reengage them, even though such negotiations are reasonable.
“As the commission found (in 2012), it was unreasonable not to have continued negotiating with shortlisted projects because, even if a project was not available to come online as soon as NorthWestern would prefer, a project could be available for later compliance years,” Kavulla wrote.
For his part, Koopman made it clear he believes the CREP requirement is flawed, but the “commission does not have the authority to amend or overturn existing state law.”
On Sept. 24, the PSC granted NWE waivers for 2015 and 2016, after granting similar waivers for the previous three years. The utility has not yet complied with the CREPs requirement for 2017 or 2018.
The intent of the law is for regulated Montana utilities to get some of their power supply from small wind, solar or other renewable developments. To comply, NWE could contract for power from a third-party’s new project, buy an existing renewable project or build its own.
At the September PSC meeting, Commissioner Tony O’Donnell, who represents the southeastern district that includes Billings, said NWE shouldn’t even have to attempt to comply with the law, which he said was badly constructed.
That prompted Koopman to reply: “We cannot flout the law. We do not have the authority to nullify the law because we think it’s a bad law. That is not our job or our authority.”
We commend Kavulla and Koopman for supporting the rule of law. O’Donnell, Chairman Brad Johnson and Commissioner Bob Lake overstepped their duty as regulators.
Montana needs to promote diverse energy developments to meet the needs of residents and businesses, to create jobs and boost the tax base throughout our great big state. Perhaps, the CREP mandate should be revised, but if so, changes should benefit Montana and NWE customers - not simply exempt the state’s largest utility from growing its renewable energy sources.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Oct. 16, on saluting MSU for tough stance on campus crime:
At first glance, crime stats in Montana State University’s latest campus safety report look disturbing compared to those in the University of Montana. But on further inspection it becomes apparent that MSU officials are taking campus crime more seriously and are to be congratulated for doing so.
MSU reported 10 times as many citations as UM for illegal alcohol and drug use. And MSU reported almost twice as many rape reports as UM - 42 vs. 23 - over three years.
A big factor in MSU’s growing crime rate is enrollment. Nearly 17,000 students attend MSU as opposed to fewer than 11,000 at UM. But more importantly, in answers to questions about the stats it’s apparent that MSU officials are dealing with campus crime more strictly.
When confronted with underage drinking and illegal drug use, MSU officers are instructed to issue criminal citations rather than verbal warnings. At UM, police are given discretion over whether to issue a criminal citation, give a verbal warning or refer offending students to the dean of students for discipline.
In addition to higher enrollment, MSU officials said that the higher number of rapes reported may signal that victims are feeling more empowered and are stepping forward in greater numbers - a compelling argument.
As part of its safety report, the campuses issue what are called Clery crime statistics required by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education has fined UM nearly $1 million for underreporting those numbers - a fine UM is appealing. The fine was leveled for omitting more than 130 crimes, including seven rapes, from its numbers.
Enrollment at UM has been is steady decline while MSU is consistently setting records for student numbers. At least part of the reason for this trend is the negative publicity UM received over its handling of several rape cases - the subject of a best-selling author Jon Krakauer book. The loss of enrollment is forcing layoffs and program cuts and negatively impacting the Missoula economy.
There is a moral in that story, one that every college and university administration should heed: Failing to strictly enforce the law can have real consequences.
MSU officials are commended for their policies on crime. And they are encouraged to continue them. Anything less could spell trouble in the long run.
Helena Independent Record, Oct. 10, on newspapers existing to empower you:
What is the role of traditional journalism in the age of instant information?
It’s a valid question, as our increasingly fragmented audience continues to get bombarded with digital information beamed directly to the supercomputer in their pocket.
Newspapers like the Independent Record must adapt to the new media landscape or get left behind. However, our commitment to informing our readers remains the same.
Oct. 7-13 was designated as National Newspaper Week by Newspaper Association Managers Inc., and we want to take this opportunity to address some of the things that set our work apart.
First of all, our stories are true.
We’re not necessarily saying everything on social media and the internet is false, but unfortunately a lot of it is. In fact, a big part of what newspapers do now involves debunking the false information being spread online.
There will always be some who either do not believe or choose not to believe what newspapers publish, which is understandable in this era of “fake news.” If that’s you, we challenge you to check our sources for yourself, and please let us know if we have made an error. When we do make mistakes, which does occasionally happen, we will admit it and do what we can to make it right — after slapping ourselves on the forehead a few times.
Next, our stories are balanced.
If we report someone’s opinion on an issue, you can bet we will also report opposing views, as long as those views are credible. It’s important to note that we strive to avoid false balance, a common journalism error that gives equal weight to differing views whether they are supported by evidence or not. That’s why we don’t present arguments on the health benefits of smoking in stories about the dangers of tobacco use.
No rational human being can claim to have no opinions, but we take steps to help ensure our news reporting is not influenced by what we believe. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said it best when he wrote “it is one thing to say that objectivity and fairness are ultimately unreachable. It is another to cease grasping for them.”
Finally, our stories are local.
You might have noticed that most of the time, our front page is filled with stories about your friends, family members, neighbors and colleagues. That’s because we know that most national stories are old news by the time the printed paper hits your doorstep, and we’re here to tell you something you don’t already know.
We might make exceptions for the national stories that change the course of history at both the national and local level - e.g. a presidential election - but we believe Helena’s latest tax hikes, school board decisions and criminal activity are usually more consequential to our audience than the latest controversy in Washington. And if you are one of the few who have been able to avoid the 24/7 news cycle, you can still read the highlights on our printed Nation and World page and find more detailed stories at helenair.com.
The Independent Record frequently reports news that otherwise would not have come to light. If it weren’t for the work of our reporters, for example, the state’s six-figure settlement with a former Montana State Parks administrator and law enforcement’s investigation into a former Helena teacher charged with raping a student would probably continue to be shrouded in secrecy.
Sometimes our work even has a domino effect that helps other reporters do their jobs, which is particularly rewarding. As a result of a legal precedent established by an Independent Record information request, for example, the newspaper in Great Falls was given access to police reports related to the arrest of Cascade County’s sheriff.
We know that not everyone will be interested in some of the things we publish, which is absolutely fine. But we strive to provide something for everyone, which is why we cover everything from politics to crime, education, business, the outdoors and entertainment.
Whether you agree or disagree with the way we operate, we welcome and encourage your comments, your concerns, and even your criticisms.
Knowledge is power, and we are here to empower you.
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