Montana's Public Service Commission is most commonly known as the PSC. But this week, in light of a bitter and vicious fight over who would become the next chairman, those initials may now stand for Permanently (and) Severely Crippled. Given that energy issues are escalating, the level of hostilities within the commission bodes ill for the body's function as the overseer of Montana's utilities.
This fall's election set the stage for the PSC's troubles when Republicans, as predicted, covered Montana in a red tide. After years of operating with Democratic majorities, November saw two slots on the five-member commission swing from Democrats to Republicans. Ken Toole, a long-time energy activist, lost his seat to Helena attorney Bill Gallagher, and the race for the open seat of retiring PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson went to motivated 26-year-old Republican Travis Kavulla.
Those wins for the Republicans mean that the next chair of the PSC should likewise be a Republican. But the guy in line for the chairman position was Brad Molnar, a former legislator from Laurel who attracts controversy and ethics charges like a lightning rod. Nonetheless, Molnar figured the chairmanship would be his until a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the vote.
By the normal operating procedures of political party loyalties, there should have been no question that newcomer Kavulla would support Molnar's bid for the chairmanship. After all, Molnar is the longest-serving member on the PSC and, given his legislative experience, a natural fit to interact with fellow Republicans who control both houses of the Montana Legislature in what is sure to be a very contentious 2011 session.
But Kavulla appears to be a new brand of Republican who weighs more than just party affiliation before he votes. According to Kavulla, he was truly bothered by Molnar's ethics case, which involved taking funds from utilities regulated by the PSC and then using the materials they paid for in his campaign. The state's Commissioner of Political Practices has already ruled that Molnar did indeed violate ethics laws as well as saying he should pay thousands of dollars in fines. Molnar is also facing problems for a hit and run incident, although he contests the charges.
Put it all together and, at least in Kavulla's mind, Molnar might not be the best Republican to chair the commission. But since Kavulla and Gallagher are new commissioners, the choices seem rather slim. So Kavulla tried an alternative approach and asked Molnar to sign a "chairman's code of conduct" document that contained nine conditions—including that Molnar not act independently without commission approval, that he doesn't file lawsuits against other government entities or ethics complaints against fellow commissioners and legislators, and doesn't "threaten or commit other acts of political reprisal."
Molnar being Molnar, he responded explosively, telling Kavulla: "You are 26 years old. You're going to tell me how to live my life? I don't think so." He then went on to close with a Molnar classic, in front of reporters, claiming that if he signed the document, he would "be the biggest lowlife motherfucker who ever climbed out from under a rock."
And so Kavulla, whose simple message to Molnar was "mellow out a little," refrained from voting and the two Democrats refused to vote for Molnar. With only fellow Republican Gallagher's vote and his own, the commission deadlocked at 2-2.
To make a long story much shorter, they tried some other nominations but none could garner a majority vote, leaving Montana's Public Service Commission leaderless as a blizzard of energy legislation hits the Capitol. Obviously, it was a situation that could not continue and by Tuesday afternoon, after more than an hour of wrangling, newcomer Bill Gallagher agreed to take the chairman position—but only if Molnar became vice-chair.
The votes were cast, Democrat John Vincent of Bozeman voted for Gallagher, and the deal, for what it's worth, was done. But despite Gallagher's promises that he would not allow commissioners to "air dirty laundry" before the public, one can just about bet that the simmering coals of contention will flare into fire again in the not-too-distant future.
It's worth wondering why the two Democrats didn't simply vote for Kavulla as chair. Despite his age, Kavulla has exactly the same amount of experience on the PSC as Gallagher—none—so there was no real advantage in picking Gallagher. Plus, since both Democrats on the commission are knowledgeable former legislators, they can recall numerous young people elected to that body in their twenties who worked hard, voted smart, and went on to great achievements in the political arena.
Moreover, Kavulla, in rejecting partisan voting as a foregone conclusion, is a real breath of fresh air in the stale backroom of politics. The commission's decision to reject his bid for chair simply because of his age shouldn't diminish his commendable independence and intelligent approach to problem solving. If we truly want young people to be involved in politics—and there's no doubt we desperately need them to do so—pushing Kavulla aside only enforces the ennui so many youth feel toward today's political morass.
Perhaps it will all work out in the end and the PSC can play the important role it should in advising the Legislature on coming energy issues and keeping energy rates affordable for Montanans. Or perhaps the bitterness and divisions will linger, rendering the PSC dysfunctional.
One way or another, it seems like an opportunity that Democrats, especially since they're in the minority on the commission, could have capitalized upon. Sure, Kavulla's young. He's inexperienced. But one thing he isn't is a bobble-headed political yes man. And you know, in today's highly partisan political world, that in and of itself is a tremendous asset for potential new leaders.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.