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Fair day’s work for fair day’s pay

by Phil Cartwright
| September 20, 2022 12:00 AM

The only reason you’re not rich is you’re lazy. My mother told me that. She didn’t buy my moaning about low pay in the state bureaucracy.

Mom had a point. If I had been willing to get off my duff and campaign for the Public Service Commission, I could be on my way to a life of well-paid bureaucratic leisure.

You win your election to the PSC and the State of Montana will give you $112,000 a year. No qualifications needed nor much work required.

The hours are great. You show up every so often, make a decision or two about Northwestern Energy or some utility, and you’re done. That’s it. The rest of your time you’re free to do as you please. And those paychecks just keep rolling in.

Take the head of the PSC, President James E. Brown. He gets base pay plus an extra $2,204.80 a year. The extra is for chairing meetings and whatever, I’m pretty sure. And as a commissioner he has plenty of time to hold down a second job.

The Funeral Directors Association claims him as their executive director. He meets with Hometown Helena for the Independent Bankers Association. And for a short while last winter he even was attorney for the Capital Trail Vehicle Association and Citizens for Balanced Use in a suit against the US Forest Service. (Travel management plan for Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, if that matters.) Can you name another job with that kind of flexibility?

On top of which, this year his job comes with yet more respect. No longer is the head of the PSC a chairman. Now he’s a president. The commissioners made that change in February. Not El Jefe or Il Capo Di Tutti I Capi but President. A wise choice.

A couple of weeks later, with title upgrade in hand and suit against the Forest Service regretfully relinquished, Mr. Brown filed to run for the Supreme Court. That makes it President Brown running to become Justice Brown. (Was William Howard Taft the last president to become a justice?)

You can see that the PSC is a good deal. And that’s even without counting the perks. At the PSC, you get hot and cold running Montana Highway Patrol officers. Want to apprehend a fellow commissioner? Raid the COVID unit at St. Pete’s Hospital? The officers of MHP have no choice but to answer your call. (OK, I’m summarizing. But both these really did happen.)

Where I failed was with timing. Here in Helena, we’re in PSC District 5 (Lewis & Clark, Flathead, Lake, and Teton counties). District 5 already has an election scheduled this year. So, because I was slow, I’ll be waiting four more years for my chance to roll around.

The candidates this year are John Repke (businessman experienced in finance, strategic planning, and management) and Ann Bukacek (doctor who owns Hosanna Healthcare).

Repke’s problem is he keeps talking about utilities and corporate finance. He makes it sound like the PSC is about regulating monopolies.

Bukacek, however, has made it clear she plans to keep her medical practice in Kalispell. She understands what today’s PSC is about. She’ll be a good fit with present commissioners (and president).

That doesn’t mean she plans on loafing. One of her main issues is bringing the new water compact in the Flathead under PSC regulation. Since that’s a legal settlement ratified by Congress and the Legislature and the Tribes, we’re not talking an easy lift here. Any changes are sure to go to court.

Maybe President Brown could be her attorney. He’s got the time.

Paul Cartwright is a former Helena city commissioner. He lives in Helena.

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