Besides utility bills and green energy, the candidates for the southeastern Montana seat on the Public Service Commission are also talking about the way the commissioners should conduct themselves.
Democrat Chuck Tooley, a three-term Billings mayor, faces Republican Kirk Bushman for a spot on the commission that sets rates for Montana’s private electric, gas, water and telephone companies.
The vast district comprises Big Horn, Carbon, Carter, Custer, Fallon, Prairie, Powder River, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone counties.
Whoever wins will replace Brad Molnar, a term-limited Republican whose time on the commission featured a stormy losing battle last year for the PSC’s chairmanship against Republican newcomer Travis Kavulla.
Molar also drew a fine from state ethics officials for illegally soliciting funds from two PSC-regulated companies in 2007. He used the money for an event in Billings, home to about 56 percent of his district’s population.
Tooley, 65, says his disappointment in the commission’s behavior is one reason he chose to run.
“I feel you do the constituency a disservice if you do not conduct the public’s business professionally and respectfully,” he says.
The PSC’s feuds concern Bushman also. He said doesn’t want to stifle debate but expects commissioners to keep it their disagreements professional.
Experience: public vs. private
The two candidates boast different professional backgrounds.
Before resigning to start his PSC campaign, Bushman, a 45-year-old father of three, worked for the Montana Republican Party and ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
The bulk of Bushman’s experience is in the private industrial sector, where he has consulted PSC-regulated companies for the global engineering consulting firm WorleyParsons. That experience would make him a better commissioner, he says.
He considers the function of the PSC to be “basically balancing the companies’ books” by confirming that requests for rate increases accurately represent a utility’s expenses and not allowing them to profit above a set rate.
“You can’t put companies into financial burden,” he says, but he adds that his goal will be to keep rates as low as possible.
Tooley worked six years for the now defunct Mountain Bell Telephone, a PSC-regulated company. He also held a position on the Montana Electric and Gas Alliance, a board that was organized to create publicly owned utilities.
In his years as a Billings mayor and city councilman, Tooley was involved in regulating the city’s utilities, a process he calls analogous to that of the PSC.
“I’ve gone through that for 15 years,” he says. “I understand how it can work and how it can work well.” A major part of that process was deliberating under public scrutiny, he adds.
Regulation and renewables
The candidates differ in their regulatory philosophies and thoughts on renewable energy.
Bushman says energy policy, such as the extent to which regulated utilities should be required to buy cleaner but sometimes more costly, renewable energy, is a matter for the Legislature, not the PSC.
Although he supports the development of renewables such as wind and solar power, Bushman says, “I don’t believe the PSC is a place to promote a renewable agenda.”
Tooley says he would be open to the idea of the PSC taking up more energy policy responsibility, should the Legislature allow it.
While he calls himself a strong supporter of Montana’s renewable energy projects, Tooley also emphasizes the need to keep rates fair and prevent price gouging.
He says he understands the need for utilities to make profits, which allow them to hire qualified employees, provide better service and invest in the future.
“But you don’t want to allow them to make too much profit,” he adds.
Bushman is confident in his campaign, even in Yellowstone County, which he considers the most liberal county in the district.
In the June primaries, Bushman won the Republican nomination with 63.3 percent of 22,222 votes cast, while Tooley won the Democratic nomination with 56.4 percent of only 16,923 votes.
Despite his district’s Republican leanings, Tooley is unfazed by the primary numbers. He says voters in the area know him well from his time as a Billings mayor and city councilman.
“I think a lot of people will vote for me even if they’re not in my party,” Tooley says.
Tooley’s prominent campaign contributors include PSC member Gail Gutsche of Missoula; former PSC member John Toole of Helena; Kim Gillan, the Democratic nominee for Congress; and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.
Bushman’s prominent contributors include PSC Chairman Travis Kavulla of Great Falls and Montana Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings.