Montana law directs the Public Service Commission to regulate, inspect and audit public utilities providing services for heat, electricity, water, solid waste, transportation, telecommunications and more.
These wide-ranging responsibilities are conferred on a five-member board representing districts of the state. District 2 covers southeast Montana, including these counties: Big Horn, Carbon, Carter, Custer, Fallon, Powder River, Prairie, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone.
Public Service Commissioners are elected for four-year terms and are paid about $101,000 a year.
Yet the PSC is probably the least known office on the June 7 primary ballot, which includes an election for the District 2 seat now held by Kirk Bushman, R-Billings. Bushman’s bid for a second term is challenged by another Billings Republican, Tony O’Donnell.
No Democrat filed for the District 2 seat, so the June 7 primary contest between Bushman and O’Donnell will decide the November election winner.
In three years on the PSC, Bushman has learned how that quasi-judicial panel works. He speaks knowledgeably about the complex regulatory issues that the PSC must decide. Bushman, a Billings Central High graduate who earned a mechanical engineering degree at Montana State University in Bozeman, worked as a field engineer and project manager for local firms before being elected to the commission.
His scientific, analytical background is useful in evaluating the industry proposals that come before the PSC. In his first term, Bushman has been involved in regional regulatory organizations, was appointed to represent Montana on the 15-state association of transmission regulators and subsequently was elected secretary.
“It is through these organizations that I can help stop federal regulation from coming to Montana,” Bushman said.
Tony O’Donnell ran close, but ultimately unsuccessful, races for state Legislature and was planning to run for a legislative seat again this year. O’Donnell told us that PSC Commissioners Roger Koopman of Bozeman and Brad Johnson of Helena recruited him to run for the commission.
“I finally agreed because I think I can make a difference,” O’Donnell told us.
However, we question whether O’Donnell is up to the task of effective PSC leadership. His resume includes studying philosophy in college before moving from California to Montana where he worked for 16 years stocking shelves at a retail store and then for a short time at a call center.
Bushman and O’Donnell both want to save coal-fired electricity generation.
“There is no evidence for catastrophic global warming,” O’Donnell said. “Stephen Hawking is an idiot.”
Bushman sees opportunity for Colstrip in future energy generation with, perhaps a new generating unit using clean coal technology and pump storage for integrating a wind farm.
“If we don’t make smart decisions now, our children are going to pay for it,” Bushman said.
Bushman and O’Donnell are in the middle of an internal PSC power struggle. On multiple issues, Bushman and Commissioner Bob Lake have disagreed with Koopman, Johnson and Commissioner Travis Kavulla. Lake is supporting Bushman’s re-election, while the other three commissioners held a Billings fundraiser to benefit O’Donnell’s campaign.
We haven’t agreed with some of Bushman’s decisions, but we recommend him to voters as the candidate with the best ability to make smarter PSC decisions.