After nearly two days of bitter, profanity-laced infighting between Republicans, Bill Gallagher reluctantly became the new chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission last week.
“It was something that I considered as a political outcome but it isn’t anything that I was hoping for,” Gallagher said in an interview. “I’m going to give it my very best.”
Though he wasn’t planning on it, Gallagher accepted the top position on the PSC, which regulates utilities, when it became clear that disagreements between new Republican Commissioners Travis Kavulla and Brad Molnar were repeatedly resulting in a stalemate over selecting a leader. Republicans gained a 3-2 majority on the PSC after victories in November by Gallagher and Kavulla.
With the most experience out of the three Republicans, Molnar was in line to chair the commission, until Kavulla refused to vote for him, saying the veteran commissioner lacks the temperament and credibility to lead the PSC. In September Molnar was ordered to pay a fine for a ruling that he had violated state ethics laws by improperly soliciting and receiving money from energy companies. He also made state headlines after he was involved in a minor traffic accident in Laurel last year from which he drove off without identifying himself or reporting it.
Pointing to those incidents, Kavulla said he wouldn’t vote for Molnar as chairman unless he signed a “Chairman’s Code of Conduct,” that listed several conditions for Molnar’s leadership, including that he would be limited to testifying before the Legislature on behalf of PSC-related issues, and only if agreed upon by a majority of commissioners. Molnar would also not be allowed to write op-eds for publications without the approval of his fellow Republican commissioners.
In a testy exchange videotaped and posted on the blog of Great Falls Tribune reporter John S. Adams, Molnar bristled at the proposed limitations.
“You are not going to tell me how to speak, talk, when, edit me, tell me if I can write an editorial, tell me if I can address a matter on fish and game before the Legislature, or on decoupling,” Molnar said. “You’re not going to do it, Travis. You’re 26 years old. You have never, ever, ever been before the Legislature or sat here and made a decision, and you’re going to edit me? You’re going to tell me how to live my life? I don’t think so.”
“Brad, those are the terms, and I don’t think they’re unreasonable,” Kavulla replied. “I don’t think anyone would view them as unreasonable.”
“Only in ‘Kavulla world’ is that reasonable,” Molnar said. “I would rather not be your chairman. I cannot live under oath like that.”
Molnar also reportedly told Kavulla that signing the document would make Molnar, “the biggest lowlife mother f—– who ever climbed out from under a rock.”
Molnar then presented Kavulla with a version of the document, dubbed the “Kavulla Karta,” imposing the same limitations on the freshman commissioner that Kavulla sought to impose on Molnar.
Kavulla nominated Gallagher for chairman, but Gallagher declined, saying he wasn’t qualified. On the second day of deliberation, Gallagher accepted the nomination on the condition that Molnar would be made vice chairman. The two minority Democrats on the PSC opposed the deal.
In the interview, Gallagher said the “silver lining” underscoring the very public disagreement was that it demonstrated, “nobody is controlling these guys or me.”
“I was disappointed at the aggressiveness and the public-ness of the rancor,” Gallagher said. “However, Republicans are independent by nature, free-thinkers. What we saw was a reflection of that.”
He also clarified his comments during the deliberation, following Kavulla’s nomination of him, that he wasn’t qualified to chair the PSC.
“What I meant to say is there are others more qualified than me,” Gallagher said. “I have no apprehensions about being the chair of the commission.”
He added that the “quality and caliber” of the PSC staff has also helped alleviate any anxiety he may have had. An attorney and a newcomer to politics, Gallagher handily defeated Democrat incumbent Ken Toole in November to represent District 5, which encompasses a region including Helena, Polson and Kalispell.
With the GOP holding a majority in the Legislature, Republican lawmakers are looking to encourage more natural resource development by rolling back certain regulations, like the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and clean energy mandates: all issues on which the PSC is expected to weigh in. According to Gallagher, commissioners are only beginning to discuss how to handle these controversial issues in the session ahead. When asked whether the brutal arguments between Kavulla and Molnar would impede the commission’s ability to work together, Gallagher said it was getting better.
“Already, the collegial atmosphere has improved markedly,” Gallagher said.
The Democrats on the commission, however, clearly do not see the rocky start to the new PSC as a positive sign. Commissioner Gail Gutsche, whose district includes Missoula, noted that the vice chair position is often held by a member of the minority party.
“The rancor, combined with the partisan nature of the proceedings, marred the outcome of the elections, which were not consistent with the commission’s tradition and history,” Gutsche said. “So what we ended up with is a chair, who by his own admission, does not have the experience necessary for the position, and a vice chair entangled in an ethics violation and an alleged hit-and-run. For those very reasons, I did not support either of them.”
“I hope this is not a sign of things to come,” she added. “The commission needs to leave this partisanship behind and get down to the business of regulating utilities in the best interest of the people who are served by them.”
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