Last week the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) elected its chair under the newly elected Republican majority. The elections took place amid rancor, divisive partisanship and discord within the Republican majority. Not only were the proceedings and the outcome of the election marred by the rancor, it also took the commission a day and a half to elect its new leadership. The new chair and vice chair are Bill Gallagher, a freshman, and Brad Molnar, a seasoned commissioner with a checkered history. Both are Republicans.
In his column last week titled “Out of Commission,” George Ochenski wonders why the two Democrats on the commission didn’t simply vote for newcomer Travis Kavulla, the other Republican freshman who supposedly transcended partisanship in his abstaining vote for Molnar. The answer is simple: inexperience. It is imprudent to elect as chair a brand new commissioner who has never participated in a utility hearing nor attended a single commission work session. We don’t elect freshmen legislators to be Speaker of the House—and with good reason—and we ought not to have elected a freshman to be the chair of the PSC. There is no precedent for such an outcome. In addition, the commission is known for its history of bipartisanship and decorum. In 1992, the Democratic majority on the commission elected a Republican to serve as chair. Why? The reason was simply because he was the most qualified candidate. In many instances, the commission has elected a chair from one party and a vice chair from the other, completely ignoring party politics and instead doing what is best for the thousands of utility and transportation customers served by the PSC.
Kavulla had another problem: He was at loggerheads with Molnar over several personal and professional issues, some of which were publicly laundered during the proceedings. Given the animosity between the two of them it became abundantly clear that neither would support the other for chair.
Molnar, the other Republican candidate for chair, can claim the most experience on the commission. Unfortunately, he can also claim the foulest mouth, the hottest temper and a questionable ethical compass. Molnar, who spiced the proceedings with a profanity-laden outburst and numerous derisive comments aimed at Kavulla, demonstrated repeatedly throughout the election process why he is not fit to be chair. In addition, his ongoing entanglement in an ethics violation (of which he has been found guilty) clearly disqualified him. In the end, all three Republicans were uniquely unqualified for the job. That is why I voted for none of them.
So, here we are. Republicans hold the majority and both leadership seats on the commission. Now it is up to them to lead. Let us hope that this inauspicious beginning is not a sign of things to come. The rate-paying citizens of Montana deserve a PSC dedicated to a fair, unbiased and ethical stewardship of energy policy, free of political wrangling. Buckle up. This could be one wild ride.
Public Service Commissioner