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Jack Zaleski, Published December 17 2011

Zaleski: North Dakota PSC gets no respect

All of us will be treated to a holiday reprieve from politics for the Christmas holidays. But until then …

What’s wrong with the North Dakota Public Service Commission? The three commissioners want out. One is quitting; two want to be in the U.S. House of Representatives. I guess they’re drooling to be part of that too-big, too-intrusive federal government their Republican sensibilities tell them to trash when TV cameras light up.

Tony Clark is not running for re-election, which suggests he’s in line for something comfy and lucrative in the private sector. Good for him. Let’s hope, however, he doesn’t sign on with some fat-cat company that was subject to PSC regulation. While Clark is an honorable fellow, that kind of move would smell bad, even if there would be nothing rotten about it. It would have (not to put too fine a point on it) that federal revolving-door feel about it.

Veteran Commissioner Kevin Cramer keeps trying to get off the PSC. Too bad, because he’s a good commissioner even if afflicted with a blind spot or two. His political ambition, however, is formidable. He wants his party’s nomination for the U.S. House, which the endorsing convention denied him two years ago. He was blown out of the hall on the first ballot by then-state Rep. Rick Berg, who went on to defeat longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

And what’s with first-term PSC’er Brian Kalk, who’s been running for something else since the day after he took his desk at PSC offices in the Capitol building? He was angling for a shot at the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad. But apparently the Berg folks got to him, and he shifted his sights to the U.S. House seat, which Berg is walking away from after one term to run for the Senate.

I don’t get it. PSC terms are a secure six years. In recent memory, commissioners have been re-elected at least once, often twice. They’ve done good work, given their tendencies to take the “business-friendly” mantra of North Dakota too far. I mean, c’mon, these guys seem to think the “public” in Public Service Commission was a constitutional naming error. They conduct themselves more like the “Business” Service Commission. If there is a consumer or environment voice on the commission, it’s little more than an occasional token squeak.

Don’t believe it? Talk to the lobbyists and industry experts who plead their companies’ cases to the PSC. They will tell you in private and frequently right out loud that they love the North Dakota PSC and a Legislature that over the years has pretty much gutted the commission’s regulatory authority, especially as it applies to threats to the environment, and to consumers who are captive of regulated utilities.

No crime in that. The commission is a creation of voters who vote against their own interests. The PSC is a prime example of the irony: abused North Dakotans re-elect the abusers. Why incumbent commissioners would want to abandon such a cushy, secure place is beyond the analytical powers of a lowly journalist.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or

(701) 24l-5521.