Commissioner’s Corner
James Brown
President, Montana Public Service Commission

I was elected to serve as a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC) in November of 2020. When I took office in January of 2021, I came to the agency with an open mind and a clear-eyed sense of the solemn responsibility to do my absolute best to oversee and regulate the companies that provide the electric power, natural gas, water, telecommunications, pipelines, railroads, refuse removal, and other regulated transportation services upon which the people and businesses of the “Treasure State” depend. 

As a fourth-generation Montanan, I came to the PSC with a sense of the history of our beloved Montana and the agency which I was empowered by the people, and my colleagues, to lead. I am aware of the stories of our early explorers and the indigenous people who helped them survive and find their way west. Similarly, I have an appreciation of Montana’s pioneer heritage and the farming, ranching, trapping, logging, and mining families who came to make Montana their home.

Human nature—mostly caring and responsible, but also deeply flawed—is not immune to the temptation to exploit, take unfair advantage, and exert excessive power. Those early pioneers, farmers, ranchers and miners of 19th Century Montana were often preyed upon by highwaymen, cattle and horse thieves, and later the corrosive power of big businesses that exerted monopolistic economic and political power for their own benefit.  In the early 1860’s President Abraham Lincoln sent emissaries to establish a territorial government and begin to bring American fairness, law, and order to the new Idaho-Montana territory. However, as we all know, the powers of government are also given to misjudgments, exploitation, and excesses.

In 1889, just a century after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Montana became a state to ensure it would have a voice in national affairs. Statehood shined a bright light on Montana and its many treasures. Perhaps first among these treasures to catch the U.S. government’s attention was its tough, brave settlers. Less than a decade after Montana became a state, the federal government called on Montana volunteers to board trains at Fort Missoula to fight for the United States in the Spanish-American War.  The bounty of Montana’s forests, its abundant grazing lands, its fertile soil, and its mineral and gem deposits also caught the attention of investors and the state’s farming, ranching, logging and mining booms were already in full swing at the dawn of the 20th Century.

The need to get Montana’s products to market led to the development of the railroads and the need for regulation to ensure that the railroads would provide their transportation services in a safe, reliable, efficient, and fair way. It was against this backdrop that the State Legislature created the Montana Board of Railroad Commissioners in 1907. Recognizing the need for regulating the utilities industry as well as the railroads, in 1913, the Legislature created the Montana Public Service Commission with the railroad commissioners serving as ex-officio members of the PSC. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Board of Railroad commissioners was officially eliminated as part of an executive branch reorganization effort and the PSC was given the full set regulatory responsibilities we currently perform for the benefit of all Montanans.

Our role is to promulgate and enforce regulations which ensure that there is a balance between the interests of Montana’s regulated monopoly utilities and industries and the interests of Montanans who pay for their services. Getting this balance right is an enormous responsibility which I, and my fellow commissioners, take very seriously. As we regulate monopoly electric and gas utilities that power and heat our homes and businesses to ensure safe, reliable, and affordable on demand; we must also protect the ratepayers from unfair and exorbitant rates, and make sure these companies have the revenue to sustain their businesses and earn a fair rate of return for their shareholders. In the transportation realm, we must make sure our natural gas pipelines and our railroads are taking all necessary steps to ensure public safety and prevent a harmful accident or leak that may result in injury or environmental damage.

Also, the PSC is a governmental agency which has a responsibility to the public to conduct our affairs in a way that is transparent, accountable and efficient. When Vice President Jennifer Fielder and I took office at the PSC in 2021, we made it a top priority to comprehensively overhaul the agency’s management systems and policies and improve the overall direction and performance of the PSC. This structural reform effort has led to dramatic improvement in the results of our most recent financial and performance audits. I can report to the people of Montana that the agency is well on its way to becoming a model of good governance. There is still work to do, but our strategic planning and performance efforts and our excellent professional staff are continuing to make great strides forward to the benefit of all Montanans.