By Ron VandenBoom
Montana Power officials, in a Tuesday meeting with local news organizations, suggested that the time has come for Montana's legislative thinking and regulatory industry to enter the 21st century by shedding its 20th century skin.
"Montana has to think more deeply about public policy when it comes to balancing, in a much better way than we've done in the past, our economic policy, environmental policy, and tax policy," said Jack Haffey, executive vice president and chief operating officer for MPC's Energy Services Division. "All of those things need to be much more thoughtfully balanced in Montana."
He added that the regulatory industry needs attention, too.
"We're an industry leading the way into the 21st century," he said, "we're shedding our 20th century skin.
"The regulation of this industry should enter the 21st century by shedding its 20th century skin."
Haffey explained that for years MPC has been regulated in a way that rewarded them for putting more expensive furniture in their offices and punished good behavior. In other words, the more they could show it cost them to do business, the more revenue they would be allowed to make.
Haffey said Montana Power doesn't want that.
"We want to align our incentives and our interests with the interests of the customer," Haffey said. "That's what I mean by shedding their 20th century skin."
He added that this should not be a partisan issue and that legislators are going to have to step up to the bar and balance this in the 21st century.
"Other states have shown this to be good for their states and we really need that," he said.
Haffey referred specifically to the Standards of Conduct enacted by the Public Service Commission in 1997.
He stated that the standards went beyond insuring MPC's affiliated commodity supply outfits didn't put "the fix in," agreeing that it would lead to a lack of competition in the utility industry and that it was something MPC shouldn't be allowed to do.
"But the standards went beyond that to prevent the transmission and distribution business from mentioning, even to the distribution customer ... that we have an affiliated telephone/Internet business," he said, referring to MPC's Touch America affiliate.
Touch America competes with companies like AT&T, Sprint, MCI World Com and other giants of the industry and Haffey said that in that industry there is no threat to competition.
"(The regulation) is bad policy and economically inefficient," he said. "It's getting in the way of allowing needed benefits from being brought to society. It's a textbook economic issue."
A suit over the issue is currently before Montana courts.
Touch America itself is what Haffey referred to as a "gratifying, continuously challenging, good news story."
He said at its current rate the network is being built around the country at a rate that by the end of 2000 will amount to 18,000 route miles of fiber. By the end of 2001, Haffey said, the figure will extend to 20,000 miles.
He also stated Touch America's system is currently the lowest cost system being built across the country.
"Touch America is now on the path of being the fifth or sixth largest cell phone fiber company in the nation," Haffey said.
Haffey said that Touch America has also just completed the first wireless "last mile" connection in the country in Billings. Similar connections will soon be up and running in Spokane, Wash. and in Helena.
Another project MPC has been working on is an alliance partnership with US West with its advanced PCS system it is beginning to build. The system would allow cell phones to have the same number as home phones with the same massaging capabilities and total information carrying systems.
MPC hopes to someday to establish what Haffey called "end to end communications" where Touch America will not only be involved with long distance communications, but also last mile communications -- the point where communications enters the home.
Haffey credits Touch America's success to hard work and ingenuity in a area where MPC has the ability to acquire smart, low cost right-of-way.