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Eastern Montanans show power by standing united

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Eastern Montanans show power by standing united

Oct 03, 2023 | 6:41 am ET
By Melissa Holt
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Eastern Montanans show power by standing united
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Photo illustration by Getty Images.

When it comes to public policy, we’re rarely encouraged to stand together asserting shared community values.

Corporations and politicians are quick to distract and divide, convincing us that our neighbor is our enemy if they have slightly differing opinions. But the bonds that unite us run so much deeper than small matters of disagreement. When we focus on shared values, we make our communities stronger and more resilient. We saw this in eastern Montana recently, and it fills me with pride in my community and hope for our future.

Last winter, people from differing backgrounds, political persuasions, and income brackets united around a common cause, organizing our neighbors to protect one another from a predatory rate increase by Montana Dakota Utilities. We recognized that the executives who run this monopoly energy corporation were trying to take advantage of a part of the state often overlooked and ignored. We understood that many of our farmers, ranchers, workers, students, and senior citizens would have a hard time shouldering the almost 20% rate hike that MDU was trying to force on us. So we got to work and proved how powerful we can be when we stand united. 

It all started last December when a friend spotted a small notice in my community newspaper, the Glendive Ranger Review, about MDU’s proposed increase. The 19.2% rate hike proposal was coming on the heels of a 15% increase that had been levied against ratepayers only a few years earlier. This was clearly an abuse of MDU’s monopoly status. 

Dawson Resource Council, the Glendive-based conservation and family agriculture organization I lead, immediately recognized we had to act. Our members began informing our neighbors and word spread quickly. Soon people from Miles City to Sidney were getting involved. We helped organize letter-writing campaigns and listening sessions in front of the Public Service Commission, the body tasked to approve or deny the increase. 

Hundreds of eastern Montanans testified, submitted comments, wrote letters to the editor, and pounded the pavement to get chambers of commerce, city governments, and tribal councils on the record opposing the rate hike. Because we were pulling in the same direction, we were immediately successful.

In an extremely rare move, MDU agreed to cut their proposed increase by more than half – all the way down to 9.1% – before the PSC even had an opportunity to vote on the matter. This move showed that Montanans have power when we work together, and it also exposed just how exploitative MDU’s original 20% proposed increase was. It’s worth noting that MDU had record earnings in 2021. Its parent company, MDU Resources, touted earnings of almost $7 billion in 2022 and profits above $367 million. Clearly, this rate increase was more about fattening stockholder’s wallets than recouping legitimate business costs.

Unfortunately, a majority of PSC commissioners sided with the stockholders in a 3-2 vote

The commissioners who represent eastern Montana districts, Tony O’Donnell and Randy Pinocci, stood with the community and voted against the increase. Commissioners James Brown, Jennifer Fielder, and Annie Bukacek stood with corporate executives and shareholders. Commissioner Bukacek, a Kalispell physician, showed just how out of touch she was by dismissing the rate increase as an insignificant cost equal to “a couple of iced lattes” each month. The folks I know who are struggling to make ends meet in my community, including seniors scraping by on fixed incomes, are just hoping to continue putting Folgers in their coffee makers.

But we’re used to being underestimated here in eastern Montana. That’s why we’re so powerful when we unite together. Even though a few commissioners from wealthier districts ultimately dismissed our concerns, we got MDU’s attention and saved our communities millions of dollars in unfair costs by cutting this increase in half. We built a strong coalition centered on common values, and I’m excited for all we can accomplish together in the future. 

Melissa Holt is a Glendive resident and the chairwoman of Dawson Resource Council, a grassroots organization of farmers, ranchers and concerned citizens who work to promote, preserve, and protect our land, water, air and food for future generations.