Bartels bill to term limit Public Utilities Commissioners defeated in committee

January 18, 2024

John Hult

PIERRE, S.D.–A bill authored by Watertown Representative Hugh Bartels that would have limited public utilities commissioners to two six-year terms in office has been defeated by the House State Affairs Committee.

Bartels said he “doesn’t have a vendetta against the PUC.” The idea is more about consistency, he said.

Aside from judges, he said, “this is the only elected office that doesn’t have a term limit.”

Bartels said he understands the complexity of the PUC’s work to regulate things like utility rates and pipelines, but also that the experience of a veteran commissioner isn’t the only form utility expertise takes.

Commissioners don’t get involved with research until a question reaches a hearing.

“It’s not researched by the commissioners,” Bartels said. “It’s researched by the staff.”

PUC Commissioner Chris Nelson spoke in opposition on behalf of all commissioners. While serving as secretary of state, Nelson said, he once asked the author of South Dakota’s legislative term limit statutes, former Rep. John Timmer, why he and the other backers of term limits exempted the PUC.

“He said, ‘We looked at the public utilities commissioners, and we,’ – meaning the drafters – ‘felt that they had some technical knowledge worth keeping around,’” Nelson said.

John Hult with South Dakota Searchlight reports commissioners review thousands of pages of documents before they sit as a quasi-judicial body to make decisions for ratepayers. That the current slate of commissioners has been stable for 13 years, Nelson said, is part of the reason no decision of theirs has been overturned by the state Supreme Court in 20 years.

He coasted to victory in 2022 against Democrat Jeff Barth, and said his campaign’s focus on experience and the 69% vote tally in his favor serve as proof that voters believe in the value of institutional knowledge.

“Do utility consumers want rookies working for them?” Nelson said.

Some committee members were not swayed. Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, said exempting commissioners from term limits can’t be justified by a need for experience.

“We as legislators, sitting on this committee, at one point were all rookies,” Chase said.

But Rapid City Republican Rep. Becky Drury agreed with Nelson.

“Their term limit is when they run for re-election,” she said.

Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Ideal, moved to defeat the bill. That motion succeeded on a 9-4 vote.